The War Over the CSSTA Enters a New PhaseIn an eerily familiar move in the legislature, the KMT may have rekindled the crisis over a controversial services pact with China
As the members of the Sunflower Movement exited the Legislative Yuan on April 10 after nearly three weeks of occupation, a number of people among the tens of thousands who’d assembled to give them a triumphal welcome must have wondered just exactly what it was that the occupiers had accomplished. While the jury is still out on the extent of their success, recent developments make it clear that the battle is far from over. In fact, it may be about to get a lot nastier.
Those who regarded the Sunflowers’ exit with optimism did so largely because of the awakening that the extraordinary occupation had generated within society, as well as the concession that the movement had extracted from Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) — and ostensibly the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — on the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA). The activists’ decision to vacate the legislative chambers stemmed from Wang’s promise, on April 6, that he would not allow a legislative review of the controversial pact with China before an oversight mechanism on cross-strait deals had been implemented, thus meeting one of the activists’ key demands.
In the days and weeks that followed the occupation, and as the riot fences and barbed wire that had become an inconvenient fact of life for nearly two months were gradually removed from the streets of Taipei, the public was kept guessing as to the government’s intentions. Would it honor Wang’s promise to the movement, or would it press on as if the occupation had never taken place or had been a short-lived aberration?
As people asked those questions, the Executive took a number of measures that left many observers worried: Among them, it empowered the National Police Agency (NPA) to execute “preventive detention” against “repeat offenders” over a widely extended list of “crimes,” many of which were purportedly committed by the leaders of the Sunflower Movement and their followers. It created three distinct units — under the Executive Yuan, the KMT and the NPA — to combat “false information” in new media. It outlawed fundraising (or “crowdfunding”) for the Appendectomy Project, a campaign organized by civil society to oust bad legislators. It clamped down on academics who had voiced opposition to the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. And it began issuing police warrants against some of the student leaders behind the Sunflower Movement; in one case, plainclothes police grabbed activist Hung Chung-yen (洪崇晏) off the street and spirited him away in a cab.
As this occurred, President (and KMT Chairman) Ma consolidated his hold on the Executive and the Legislative branches by slashing the number of people on the KMT Standing Committee and, in a classic co-optation move, by appointing three potential opponents within his party as vice KMT chairmen. Meanwhile, KMT legislators who did not toe the party line in the legislature (where the KMT has a majority of seats) were either threatened with expulsion or, as happened over a recent vote on nuclear energy, they were fined NT$20,000 each for their “infraction.”
Besides the hard-to-miss parallels with the behavior of (soft) authoritarian regimes, those measures also seemed to indicate that the government was digging in and intended to counter future opposition to its policies with severe countermeasures.
No sooner had some of the more prominent Sunflowers begun receiving summons for questioning from the police than the KMT repeated, almost verbatim, what had sparked the whole crisis back in March. During a committee meeting on May 12 to discuss the aforementioned cross-strait oversight mechanism, KMT Legislator Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠) — the same man who on March 17 announced that the review of the CSSTA was complete before review had even started — interrupted Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Duan Yi-kan (段宜康) and decreed that a KMT proposal to push up the period during which legislators could access documents associated with the CSSTA from August 31 to May 31 was to be put to a vote immediately. And that was that. Dumbstruck DPP legislators could only look on as the pan-blue legislators voted by show of hand and left the room. The whole incident had taken three minutes. (In comments in the afternoon, Chang said he’d had no choice because the DPP was once again “causing trouble” and undue delays by opposing the May 31 deadline, which if passed would only give legislators six days’ access to the data. The following day, the DPP occupied the podium in an attempt to reverse the move, and the crisis continues.)
This kind of action, which Citizen Congress Watch said constituted a violation of the rules of legislative procedure, raises serious questions about the future of the proposed oversight mechanism. It also puts into doubt the KMT’s commitment to ensuring that the mechanism has enough teeth to assuage public fear over the government’s “black box” negotiations with an authoritarian China, whose regime does not recognize the existence of Taiwan and will make every possible use of the CSSTA and other pacts to maximize its influence on Taiwanese.
Surely the KMT must have known that such a controversial move, coming so soon after the March 17 debacle, would spark ire among the many people who fought to ensure that the government became more accountable and transparent. By going back on its word (though the KMT made it clear from the very beginning that it did not recognize the validity of Wang’s promise to the students), the KMT-led administration seemed to be looking for a fight, as the Sunflower leadership had vowed they would take action again if the government did not abide by its commitment. And sure enough, a few hours after Chang stunned DPP legislators with his little stunt, student leader Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), who already faces the possibility of having to serve seven years in jail for his role in the occupation, responded by encouraging the public to bombard legislators with phone calls and threatened that the movement was mulling further steps.
Of course, whatever civil society does next in response to the KMT’s latest undemocratic move, the Presidential Office will quickly accuse them of “irrationality” and “extremism,” while calling upon the police force and the courts to clamp down on the dissidents. Only this time, the NPA will have much greater powers to do so.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.