What began as a demonstration has led to the storming of the Taiwanese Parliament. Students have been occupying the assembly building since Tuesday evening, protesting against a trade agreement with Beijing.
Liu Tsong-yan and Chen Bo-jen stand on the wall of the parliament building in Taipei and hold on to the bars. "The service trade pact must not be rubber-stamped like that," says law student Liu, adding that this would mean the end of Taiwan.
His colleague Chen feels betrayed by his government. "Such a deal must be widely discussed, but instead, they want to force it through parliament," the English Literature student said.
Since the evening of March 18, some 200 protesters, mostly young Taiwanese students, have occupied the island's parliament. Several attempts by police to clear the premises have so far failed.
The protesters have barricaded themselves with chairs and tables in the plenary chamber. When police attempted to enter parliament in the early hours of Wednesday, March 19, the students pushed them back.
Shortly thereafter, several hundred other demonstrators who had been waiting in front of the barricades climbed over the wall, tore down a gate and eventually entered the site. They are supported by opposition politicians, who have urged the police not to take action against the students.
Taiwan open to Chinese investments
The reason behind the protests are government plans to ratify a contentious service trade pact which foresees the opening up of a number of service sectors to Chinese investment. If passed by parliament, the agreement would enable companies from the mainland to invest in areas such as Taiwan's publishing industry. In return, Taiwanese companies would be allowed to invest in 80 different service sectors in China.
Deputies from Taiwan's two dominant political camps had been arguing for two days over the agreement. The discussions had also led some parliamentarians to come to blows. The ruling Kuomintang (KTM) party announced on March 17 that the pact must not be debated any further, thus clearing the way for its ratification.
While the government claims Taiwan will benefit economically from the deal, critics fear the trade pact with China would have a negative impact on local Taiwanese companies and workers. They would have a hard time competing with those on the Chinese mainland.
Moreover, the opposition is critical of the pact, describing it as a further step in bringing Taiwan closer to the mainland. The KTM-led government under President Ma Ying-jeou is regarded as China-friendly. Ever since Ma took office six years ago, there have been direct flights between the two countries. Large numbers of Chinese tourists visit the island nation every year and Chinese students are allowed to study in Taiwan.
Parliamentary session cancelled
Taiwan was founded when the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949. Although the government in Taipei is recognized diplomatically by only a few states, the island is de facto independent.
The protesters have vowed to occupy the parliament until Friday, when lawmakers are set to hold a full session to review the pact. "If the government really cares about its citizens, then now is the time to listen to us," said Liu Tsong-yan and Chen Bo-jen.