TAIPEI Tens of thousands of Taiwanese decried a landmark trade deal with rival China in a protest on Saturday that will not stop their government from signing the agreement to boost around $100 million in annual two-way trade.
Braving thunderstorms and rain, the demonstrators lambasted Taiwan's pro-China President Ma Ying-jeou, whom they pledged to vote out of office if he sticks by the deal, set to be signed on Tuesday.
Presidential spokesman Lo Chih-chiang scoffed at the protest, saying the strongest tie-up ever between the political foes of 60 years did not mean Taiwan was selling out to China.
"They don't dare to oppose ECFA," Lo said, referring to the economic cooperation framework agreement with China. "Their opposition is to a one-China market... A one-China market would be like a European Union, but we don't have that with China."
The crowds that converged on Ma's office included opposition leaders raising their profile ahead of an expected parliamentary challenge next month to ECFA, which may delay the implementation of the deal.
The protest was organized by the anti-China opposition Democratic Progressive Party, whose leaders hope to position the ECFA as a key issue in November 27 local elections seen as a bellwether for the 2012 presidential race, analysts say.
"Ma Ying-jeou won't listen, but he'll lose in the elections," said demonstrator Chen Chih-wu, 48, a self-employed merchant, as air horns blasted through the packed streets. "I came out to remind him how arrogant he is."
The deal, full of sweeteners for Taiwan with less in return for China, has been described as Beijing's gambit to charm Taiwan as an economic benefactor, part of its long-term goal of reunifying with the island over which it claims sovereignty.
Dilution of the trade pact, which includes import tariff cuts on about 800 items, would cool Taiwan's $390 billion export-led economy. The government is pushing the deal, fearing Taipei will lose out to rivals in the booming Chinese market.
But some protesters said the ECFA will hurt small businesses by letting in cheaper Chinese goods, and put Beijing a step closer to a reunifying politically with self-ruled Taiwan.
"Ma Ying-jeou is depending too much on mainland China for everything, but Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China," said protester and Taipei retiree Lu Chun-tsun, 78. "If this were Japan he would have stepped down by now."
The Democratic Progressive Party said 100,000 people took part in the protest, but the police said, at its peak, the protest included 32,000 people, with the numbers falling as thunderstorms crackled in the skies above Taipei.
The ECFA will be signed on June 29 in Chongqing, once briefly the capital of China under the rule of the Nationalists, who are now Taiwan's ruling party after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949 and retreating to the island.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Standing)
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)