Wednesday 2 April 2014

Lessons from Taiwan for the TPPA

Over the last two weeks, massive protests in the "Sunflower Revolution" have been held in Taiwan against the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), a trade agreement between Taiwan and China. The agreement has very broad implications for the 85% of Taiwan's companies classified as "micro-companies" with less than five employees. The world's 20th largest economy, 69.2% of GDP comes from the services sector, which could be flooded by mainland Chinese businesses operating on a cost leadership strategy if the agreement were passed. The majority of the protesters are students, who are not against the trade agreement per se, but are against the way that the agreement has been rammed through the parliamentary process. Below is a synopsis of recent events, because there has been literally zero coverage of the protests in New Zealand mainstream media.

The agreement was signed in June 2013 in Shanghai, but has not yet been ratified by the Taiwanese legislature. To do this, the agreement has to move through various levels of a US-style government, including committee stages, house debates, and floor votes. In June 2013, the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) agreed that there would be a clause-by-clause review of the trade agreement to ensure that it truly was in the interests of all Taiwanese citizens. In September 2013, they promised to hold 16 public hearings with academics, NGOs, and trade representatives.

Thus began the subversion of democracy, as the KMT proceeded to chair eight public hearings within a week, with intended participants either not invited or not informed about the meetings until the last minute. The DPP had not chaired any meetings yet when on March 17th, the presiding (KMT) chair of the Internal Administrative Committee announced that the review process had gone beyond 90 days and thus the CSSTA should be considered reviewed and submitted to a plenary session on March 21 for a final vote.

The response was swift and large - by 9PM on March 18th protesters had climbed over the fence at the legislature and entered the building, with between 300 and 2000 protesters occupying the parliamentary chamber since then and thus preventing any sessions from taking place. Water and electricity has since been cut to that part of the building, although protesters outside have been passing in supplies through open windows.

Taiwan is known for their generally peaceful and often colourful protests. Over the last two weeks there have been as many as 500,000 people outside the parliament buildings, demanding a clause-by-clause review of the trade agreement. But my favourite quote so far is probably this one:
"Vivian, head of the team of recycling students, felt that the media had largely ignored this aspect of the protest. "If we leave this place with garbage everywhere the people that disagree with what we're doing now, will disagree with us even more.""
In what other national protest with half a million people would you find a recycling team?!

The protest has had its violent moments too - on March 23rd after a press conference where President Ma Ying-Jeou restated his resolve in passing the trade pact, protesters stormed the Executive Yuan where the Cabinet Offices and various Executive Offices are located. After President Ma authorised the use of force, around 1000 riot police evicted protesters over the course of ten hours, using water cannons and baton strikes to the head against nonviolent protesters, while ordering journalists and medics to leave. More than 150 people were injured. In a twist, hundreds of pro-China activists rallied against the parliament occupation on April 1, led by a prominent gang leader who was on bail at the time. It was reported that the pro-China activists was paid to be there. The protests are continuing and no quick resolution is in sight.

And what does this mean for the TPPA and New Zealand? Here is an info sheet on why the Sunflower Revolution is happening that was handed out at a symbolic protest in Aotea Square in Auckland:

In the words of @CParkus, find and replace with "TPPA" and "United States".

The protests in Taiwan aren't necessarily against the CSSTA - they are against the lack of democratic process and subversion of democratic rights instituted by the government. I am personally not opposed to the concept of a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA); I believe that there are a lot of economic efficiencies to be gained through more open and freer international markets. What I am opposed to is the way that the negotiations are held in secret, and the potential for the National (or Labour) government to then ram any finalised text through Parliament within three days using urgency. They've done it before with The Hobbit deal, and there isn't much stopping them from doing it again if they're afraid that any element of the agreement might be unpalatable to the constituency. That's why having a credible party of a significant size like the Greens remaining opposed to the TPPA and making themselves heard is so important.

The National Taiwan University Mathematics Department issued a statement declaring:
"We are not against the signing of the service trade agreement per se, since we do live in a world being swept by globalization, but the signing and review processes must be transparent and executed with due process. This is why we support what the students are demanding, which is rejecting any agreement signed ‘in a black box’."

Even if the TPPA is the most benign trade agreement ever, New Zealanders should not accept any agreement signed 'in a black box'. I'm not saying that New Zealanders should occupy the House of Representatives and the Beehive, but we shouldn't take this lying down either. Transparency is critical to an effective and functional democracy. While I can understand why the agreement should be negotiated behind closed doors, New Zealanders should be consulted on their views before any signing, and definitely must be consulted before any ratification. Our knowledge and understanding of the TPPA shouldn't have to come from Wikileaks. Our government has a responsibility to keep its citizens informed, and right now, it is falling well short.

Finally, a bit of humour on how the TPPA negotiations are probably going...

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