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President Ma's Remarks at an International News Conference

Members of the media, members of the Cabinet, my fellow countrymen:

Good evening!


Over the past several days, students have occupied the Legislative Yuan to protest issues involving the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, leading to significant controversy in Taiwan society. On the Internet, people holding different views have pointedly criticized each other and demanded that others express their stance. Some, unable to stomach the opinions of others, have taken to unfriending each other on Facebook. I’m sure that many people, like me, are saddened and distressed. On March 23, some members of the public illegally occupied the Executive Yuan and had to be evicted by police. That evening left everyone shocked, upset, and sleepless.

At this juncture, here’s the key problem we are facing: The services agreement issue, which could have been handled through debate in the Legislative Yuan, has reached an impasse, with legislative operations completely paralyzed. Today and tomorrow, members of the public supporting different positions are taking to the streets, and the situation is very unstable. As president, I must express my concern and my hopes. The services agreement should of course be discussed. However, Taiwan must have unity. Our society must have stability.

I. Support for the student movement; insistence on the rule of law

From television news coverage over the past few days, we have seen many young people protesting in the streets in a rational demonstration of their strongly held wishes. Students have sacrificed the normalcy of their everyday lives to express their beliefs. This is touching evidence of Taiwan’s democratization. It has been tough for our youth, but it has not been without reward.

Student movements are a concrete manifestation of young people’s social concern and democratic participation. I have always supported student movements. I too took part in such movements when I was in university and while studying in the US more than four decades ago. During the Wild Lily student movement in 1990, I talked to students taking part in the sit-in at the square in front of National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. My stance and attitude toward student movements have never changed.

That’s how I think. And for that reason, I salute the students who have staged a rational 12-day sit-in outside the Legislative Yuan. They have been carefully studying materials on the services agreement, listening to remarks by scholars and experts, and employing diverse and creative means to express their views, while also organizing patrols to maintain order. This is all very much to their credit. Moreover, they have given the entire citizenry insights into the vitality and potential of our younger generation.

At the same time, however, I must be frank with some of the students who have forcefully occupied the Legislative Yuan chamber. Regardless of the degree to which you reflect the will of the public, it is still inappropriate to occupy the legislative chamber, bring legislative operations to a standstill, and destroy public property.

In particular, on the evening of March 23, when some students and other people forced their way into the Executive Yuan, I do believe the general public was shocked at how the protests had flared out of control. The confrontations that resulted from these illegal, disruptive actions created great concern among the people of Taiwan. Will Taiwan’s hard-won democracy be derailed? Will our democratic institutions, designed to resolve major public policy disputes, break down? Many people are also worried by the precedent: Can any civic group, on the grounds of upholding its own principles of fairness and justice, occupy government offices and insist that everyone else accept their demands? Other civic groups could well follow their example and occupy parliament to achieve their goals. If so, how then can Taiwan’s democratic system operate?

These questions troubled all our fellow countrymen throughout Taiwan that night. We affirm the students’ passion for participation, but any political demand must be pursued within the bounds of the rule of law. We do not wish to see a recurrence of incidents similar to the March 23 occupation of the Executive Yuan. Otherwise, Taiwan may suffer irreparable harm. I want to urge the student leaders in tomorrow’s protests to ensure that views are expressed in a peaceful and rational manner. I am certain that this is the shared hope of all our people.

During the past few days, the Office of the President has openly stated that we wish to invite, without any preconditions, student representatives to the Presidential Office to discuss the services agreement and resolve the impasse so as to help parliament return to its normal operation as soon as possible. These discussions would be completely open and public from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the students have not responded positively to this overture, so no meeting has taken place. Yesterday I met with the presidents of 11 universities, who said they would be very willing to facilitate dialogue. We truly appreciate their assistance.

Given the impasse over the occupation of parliament and concerns among my fellow countrymen, after a lengthy contemplation and consultations with many people, as president I will now respond to the four demands of the students.

II. Response to the four demands of students

First demand: Institutionalization of an oversight mechanism for cross-strait agreements

Yesterday, Premier Jiang Yi-hua stated explicitly in his press conference that the government is taking an open attitude regarding this issue. Here I want to go a step further and pledge support for the institutionalization of a mechanism for oversight of cross-strait agreements. I also call upon members of the Legislative Yuan from both the ruling and opposition parties to complete this before the end of this current session of the legislature.

In fact, on February 19 the Kuomintang caucus in the Legislative Yuan proposed a four-stage mechanism for oversight and cross-strait communication, and the Executive Yuan has said it is also willing to accept it. This mechanism would be a standard operating procedure for public oversight of cross-strait agreements before they are submitted to the Legislative Yuan. It includes four stages: during the process of issue formation, when the content of an agreement is taking shape; communication among relevant agencies during negotiations; reporting to the Legislative Yuan on the principal contents prior to the signing of the agreement; and after the signing, disclosure of detailed information deemed sensitive in the preceding stages. The Mainland Affairs Council has already drafted concrete measures for institutionalizing these procedures, which will be made public next week.

Second demand: Passage of an act institutionalizing the oversight mechanism before review of the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement

The services agreement issue has already reverted to its pre-dispute status, which means that it will be reviewed and voted upon article by article in the Legislative Yuan. This was the outcome of negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties last year, and is the first demand raised by students on March 18. The stance of the Office of the President is, under the principle of parliamentary autonomy, to respect the legislative procedure and timetable.

I just pledged to urge ruling and opposition party legislators to complete the institutionalization of a mechanism for the oversight of cross-strait agreements as soon as possible, so that in the future, cross-strait agreements that have not yet been signed, or that have already been signed but have not yet been submitted to the Legislative Yuan for review, can be subject to a better oversight process. However, regarding agreements already signed and submitted to the Legislative Yuan for review, legislative review and the aforementioned oversight process can proceed simultaneously without any problem. That way, they don’t have to go back to committee again, where it would be necessary to repeat the process of special presentations and public hearings. This is our basic stance.

Third demand: A citizens’ constitutional conference

The depth and breadth of discussion in our society regarding the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement is unprecedented in the history of public policy discussions in Taiwan. In light of the differing opinions held in the various sectors of our society, and whether we should hold a “national affairs conference,” “citizens’ constitutional conference” or “consultative conference on economic and trade affairs,” I have asked the Executive Yuan to make an overall assessment, to solicit a broad range of public opinion, and to inform us all of the results of this assessment as soon as possible.

Fourth demand: Withdrawal of the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement

Nine months have elapsed since the signing of the services agreement last June, and the legally mandated procedure has already entered the legislative review stage. We support an article-by-article review and vote upon the agreement by the Legislative Yuan, but we do not agree that the Executive Yuan should withdraw the agreement. Otherwise, the harm caused to Taiwan would be too great.

We have promoted the agreement to stimulate Taiwan’s services sector, to ensure Taiwan’s economic vitality, and to create conditions conducive to Taiwan participating in the process of economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region. All three of these objectives are extremely important for Taiwan.

Over the past few days, specialists and business leaders have made some very good comments. Central Bank Governor Perng Fai-nan said, “Taiwan must go forth. Taiwan cannot be marginalized. The Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement can help Taiwan’s integration into the global economy.” Chairman Lai Cheng-i of the General Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of China said, “We hope the students at the Legislative Yuan will go back to school and allow the Legislative Yuan to return to normal operation, so that it can review the services agreement article by article.”

Bruce C.H. Cheng, honorary chairman of Delta Electronics, said, “The Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement will have no effect on Taiwan’s business sector. It cannot be delayed too long and should be passed quickly.” According to the last public opinion poll released by Business Today weekly, 12 of the 13 chairs of university economics departments in Taiwan support the agreement, believing it will be beneficial to Taiwan’s economy.

These points show how important the services accord is to Taiwan, and how pressing our need is for such an agreement. Research by the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research shows that with the services agreement our services exports to mainland China can be expected to increase by 37 percent, or NT$12 billion (US$394 million), while creating up to 12,000 jobs. Support for services agreement is thus support for Taiwan’s services sector, Taiwan’s job market, and Taiwan’s economy. Moreover, the government has set aside NT$98.2 billion (US$3.22 billion) to help businesses affected in various ways.

The services agreement is part of the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is a bilateral trade pact under the World Trade Organization. If the services agreement is not passed, it will severely damage Taiwan’s credibility in the international community, hamper our efforts to liberalize trade, and affect our chances of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This would harm Taiwan’s economic future. Since the pact is clearly good for Taiwan, if I stall on it now, how could I, as president, possibly face my fellow countrymen?

The points above are my response to the students’ four demands.

I want the students to know that the government has been working hard for the past few days on how to reply to your demands. Some of them can be met. Some require time. And some would not be beneficial to Taiwan’s economy, and would thus be hard to act upon. We are willing to carry out those that are doable; for those which present difficulties, we will provide candid explanations, and we hope everyone will understand that we cannot irresponsibly mislead the public.

Some students will of course disagree with the responses I’ve given, and that’s quite alright. Democracy is a process of yielding to the majority, respecting minorities, and tolerating different views. I sincerely hope that all those holding dissimilar views will adopt a rational and peaceful attitude in discussing these issues, while respecting the opinions of others. I hope everyone can learn, in the spirit of democracy and rule of law, to get along with those holding other views, so that consensus may gradually be reached.

I want also to sincerely remind opposition parties that a student movement has a certain purity of motivation. When the people come out on Ketagalan Boulevard tomorrow, if political parties take advantage of the situation to mobilize their supporters and this results in heightened antagonism, the country will not be happy to see it. Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pyng has already chaired several consultations between the ruling and opposition parties, without yet reaching consensus, and the Democratic Progressive Party has announced it is withdrawing from further talks. I especially want to ask Mr. Wang to do his utmost to forge agreement between the ruling and opposition parties, so the Legislative Yuan can exercise its autonomous authority.

I also urge the ruling and opposition party caucuses to restart talks and reach consensus under Mr. Wang’s leadership. I hope that Mr. Wang can also help convince the students to vacate the legislative chamber as soon as possible so that normal legislative operations can be restored.

III. Return to the Legislative Yuan and genuine democracy

Last night I met with 11 university presidents from around the country to hear their opinions. They told me that the students’ views are quite straightforward. In addition to calling for a transparent review of the services agreement, and for due process, they are also concerned about their own futures, including job prospects and the greater public good. Well, it so happens that a better future for our young people is precisely our goal.

To our young friends in the legislative chamber, and to our countrymen preparing to take to Ketagalan Boulevard tomorrow, I want to express my deepest feelings: I have heard your voices. I entirely understand your concerns, which it is the responsibility of the government to handle. I hope that one day we can sit down together and have a serious discussion on all the issues you are worried about, including salaries, employment, housing, starting families, and the future direction of Taiwan’s economy, in an effort to find solutions.

I sincerely hope, my young friends, that in addition to expressing the intensity of your passion for Taiwan, you will also exercise the clarity of your minds to find a path forward for Taiwan.

Students, your efforts have focused the attention of our fellow countrymen on the importance of the services agreement, and prompted better oversight of cross-strait agreements. Your resolve and passion will not be forgotten. Now you should consider returning the legislative chamber to the Legislative Yuan.

My fellow countrymen, we can all hold different views on public policy while still caring deeply for Taiwan, but we’re in this together—we all have a shared mission and responsibility to keep Taiwan moving forward. At this time, we must unite for Taiwan and trust in our democratic institutions as the best way to resolve disputes. Only in this way can Taiwan continue marching forward.

God bless Taiwan! Let us work together for the sake of Taiwan!

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