Taiwan's Ma says ready to meet protesters over China trade pact

TAIPEI Tue Mar 25, 2014 3:35am EDT

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature, at the Presidential Office in Taipei March 23, 2014. REUTERS/Minshen Lin

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou speaks during a news conference about protesters' occupation of Taiwan's legislature, at the Presidential Office in Taipei March 23, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Minshen Lin

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TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has invited the leaders of a student protest movement to his office in a bid to resolve an impasse about a controversial trade pact with mainland China.

Taiwan's parliament building has been occupied by hundreds of protesters for the past week over the government's decision to agree to a deal that would open 80 of China's service sectors to Taiwan, and 64 Taiwanese sectors to China.

"Without setting any preconditions, President Ma Ying-jeou is willing to invite student representatives to the presidential office for a dialogue about the cross-strait services trade agreement," Lee Jia-fei, Ma's spokesperson, said in a statement.

Ma has said the trade agreement is necessary for Taiwan's economic future, but opponents say the deal could hurt small Taiwanese companies. Many are also worried the pact will allow China to expand its influence over a fiercely independent and proudly democratic territory that China still sees as a renegade province.

The students are expected to respond to Ma by Tuesday.

The latest protest, which escalated on Sunday when hundreds of demonstrators occupied the Taiwan government's headquarters, is the biggest challenge to Ma's rule since he took office in 2008.

Taiwan made a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1980s, and is now one of Asia's most freewheeling democracies. Fights in parliament are common and protests are almost a daily occurrence.

Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since the Communists took power on the mainland in 1949, though relations have warmed considerably since the China-friendly Ma won the presidency in 2008 and secured re-election in 2012.

(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

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