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Reflections on Taiwan-China bilateral accord

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Interview with Hungying Chen of the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA)

By Stefan Christoff

Taiwan’s parliament approved a historic Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in August 2010, removing tariffs on hundreds of products while sparking major street protests in Taiwan in opposition to the accord.

Critiques in Taiwan directed at the bilateral trade agreement with China range from a opposition rooted in powerful nationalist political parties in Taiwan to an opposition that points to potentially damaging impacts of the trade accord on environmental and labour standards in Taiwan.

In an interview for bilaterals.org Hungying Chen with Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) outlines a critical perspective on the ongoing political debate in Taiwan concerning the bilateral accord with China while offering an analysis outlining a broader Asian and global regional context to the bilateral agreement between China and Taiwan.

Stefan Christoff: Can you express some of your principal concerns with the bilateral trade agreement that was recently signed between China and Taiwan?

Hungying Chen: Largely the concerns [toward the bilateral trade accord with China], expressed by the mainstream [in Taiwan], have largely focused on the national sovereignty question. This trade agreement [speaks] to both a political crisis and an identity crisis [for Taiwan] even in the activist field. Maybe listeners have heard about the debates between pro-Taiwanese independence vs. pro integration with China, so [the debate is] actually not only about free trade or signing an economic agreement with China but is about the future direction of Taiwan.

So there are popular concerns about the Taiwan-China relationship and [looking at] Hong Kong-China relations is an important reference given recent history.

So a key issue with the China-Taiwan agreement is national sovereignty and also the threat of exclusion for Taiwan from [maintaining independent economic relationships to] Asian countries, fears that the China-Taiwan agreement will redirect all Asian economic relationships for Taiwan. Will Taiwan become integrated into China politically and economically or will Taiwan maintain independence?

On the financial crisis, many in Taiwan question if this accord is an effective way to address the migration of Taiwan industries to China because many Taiwanese industries moved to China in the past decade. Many argue that the agreement with China will make many more in Taiwan loose their jobs.

Stefan Christoff: What will this bilateral trade accord with China mean for both the environment and labour rights in Taiwan?

Hungying Chen: Even before the agreement with China was signed, Taiwan was suffering the impacts of an environmental crisis linked to the petrol chemical industry that is along the coast. In Taiwan there are ongoing environmental campaigns to protect lands and ocean life, specifically dolphins from the impacts of unregulated industries.

We know that the petrol chemical industry can be very environmentally damaging and there is a former national enterprise, Kuokuang Petrochemical Techonology, planning to build more petrol chemical plants on the coastal wetlands in Changhwa, near the mouth of Jhuoshuei River in central Taiwan.

Petrol chemical industries have sparked controversy in Taiwan in the past and will impact thousands of hectares of costal wetlands and many endangered species. Many people in Taiwan have been fighting for environmental rights in these regions.

Also these chemical plants will impact local farming. Thousands of local people in Taiwan tried to collectively buy the land where these chemical plants are located without success. Many elementary school students have also signed petitions against the petrol chemical plants and prepared on-line videos opposing the industrial plants, calling on them to not be built on Taiwanese wetlands.

So the government in Taiwan supports the petrol chemical industry in light of potential economic benefits that will supposedly occur via the bilateral agreement with China. Also we can only imagine what Chinese companies will aim to develop petrol chemical industries in Taiwan, [bolstered] by the bilateral agreement with China.

Stefan Christoff: On the recent protests that have been happening in Taiwan against the bilateral accord with China can you talk about these protests and their significance?

Hungying Chen: Actually it is difficult to totally judge the protests. There is a strong anti China trade agreement sentiment among the people in Taiwan, but the protests were organized by the Democratic Progressive Party.

There is a [sentiment within] grassroots groups that the protests against [the bilateral agreement with China] were orchestrated for political gains by because their struggles on a variety of issues [date back to] the time when the Democratic Progressive Party was in power, [a political party] that is now [speaking on] grassroots issues [in light of the] China accord.

So were the mobilizations really anti free trade agreement or simply election campaigning, it is not clear to see.

Stefan Christoff: At the same time there has been quite a serious participation in these protests against the China bilateral accord by labour and peasant organizations …

Hungying Chen: Yes such groups and movements in Taiwan are opposed to the China trade agreement but also are expressing worry about the protests and [their struggles] being co-opted by the main opposition party in Taiwan.

Stefan Christoff: In regards to the World Trade Organization (WTO) process China seems to be putting a great deal of energy into bilateral accords but not into the WTO, your thoughts?

Hungying Chen: Certainly there is a clash between the WTO vision and these bilateral trade agreements which are increasingly popular in Asia. Also seems like there is a competition by some countries on who can sign more free trade agreements. In statistics the Asian Development Bank (ADB) indicates that within Asia there are over 100 trade agreements already signed and almost 100 others under negotiation, so the shift to bilateral accord in Asia is quite significant.

Stefan Christoff: Wondering your thoughts on the impacts of these ongoing bilateral agreements on social justice in Asia, on the well being of people. How will these accords impact the disparity of wealth, the gap between the wealthy business class and the majority of people, will these accords impact the wealth gap?

Hungying Chen: Certainly the bilateral agreements will undermine labour rights and also there are other struggles against land grabs happening under free trade agreements.

Also many Taiwan industries moved their factories to China over the past decade and the government is trying hard to draw back these industries to Taiwan. One of the conditions from the corporations is that the Taiwan government will have to expand the land that the companies use and there are plans to expand industries operations in central Taiwan.

Many activists in Taiwan are mobilizing against this plan and the government is enforcing an expropriation program that beyond parks is also snatching lands from farmers to expand industrial parks. In reality there are many industrial lands in Taiwan that are already vacant that could be used for industries returning to Taiwan, so this is an argument against acquiring new lands.

Stefan Christoff: Wondering what you expect to see on the ground in Taiwan in the next couple of months in relation to the now singed bilateral agreement with China?

Hungying Chen: Labour and student organizations are organizing to asses the impacts of the China bilateral agreement, there are many forums planned to focus on these points, especially focusing on the accords impacts on environmental and labour rights.

Also there is an awareness that the bilateral accord with China could point to an industrial structural adjustment for Taiwan which will could see up to 100 000 people loose their jobs, so certainly civil society is quite focused on labour rights.

* Hung-Ying Chen works at the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) based in Seoul, South Korea. She focuses on social issues including direct democracy, migrant, housing rights and alternative globalization. 

* Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based journalist & community activist who contributes to bilaterals.org via the Fighting FTAs project.

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