TAIPEI (Reuters) - Thousands of young people in Taiwan waved banners and shouted slogans on Friday, marking the third day of their occupation of parliament to protest against a trade pact with China they fear could further swell Beijing’s economic influence.
Parliamentary approval of the pact would pave the way for greater economic integration between the two former geopolitical foes, by opening 80 of China’s service sectors to Taiwan and 64 Taiwan sectors to China.
Protesters demanding a presidential audience and brandishing sunflowers as a symbol of hope flooded parliament and the surrounding streets.
They held up signs opposing both the pact on trade in services with mainland China, the island’s biggest export destination, and what they called the undemocratic methods used to push the bill over an initial legislative hurdle.
“We oppose the abuse of power by a small political body to ram through this bill,” said college student Blink Lin, 25, one of hundreds of protesters crowding the floor of parliament.
The protesters had used chairs to blockade the chamber doors, and strung its walls with posters condemning President Ma Ying-jeou.
Ma and his ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) have promoted the pact, which faces a final review in parliament on April 8, as necessary to maintain Taiwan’s competitiveness and status as an export powerhouse.
They have called it a precondition for Taiwan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a wide-ranging trade deal among 12 countries, spearheaded by the United States.
“We’re scared of the effect China’s influence could have on our freedom of speech,” said Yoyo Wu, who has been camping on the floor of parliament since Tuesday, when protesters smashed doors and repulsed police efforts to remove them.
Taiwan is a former dictatorship that made a peaceful transition to democracy in the late 1980s, and now boasts one of Asia’s most freewheeling democracies. Fights in parliament are common, and protests are almost a daily occurrence.
In a statement on Friday, Ma did not set a timetable for meeting with student leaders, but said he wanted to build consensus and urged the protesters to let parliament resume.
On its website, his KMT party condemned efforts by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to block the pact, and characterized the students as pawns of the DPP.
The pact is an economic matter, not a political matter, it said, blaming the DPP for stirring up the protest out of a “knee-jerk desire” to block everything related to China.
The DPP supported the students’ freedom of expression, a party spokesman said, but denied instigating the protest.
The DPP has said it fears the pact will hurt small service companies and damage Taiwan’s economy. But it lacks the numbers to block the bill’s final passage.
China has made no official comment on the protests, though the influential Global Times tabloid said in an editorial on Friday the protest “shames Taiwan democracy”.
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.
China still regards Taiwan as a renegade province, to be regained by force if necessary, and many in Taiwan are wary of the warming ties Ma’s administration promotes.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez