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Taiwan: Young protesters rally against tighter scrutiny by pro-China lawmakers

DPP's lawmakers hold sunflowers while Han Kuo-yu, the parliament speaker, watches at a parliamentary session, in Taipei (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands of predominantly young demonstrators encircled Taiwan’s legislature late into Tuesday night, voicing their opposition to a move by opposition parties to subject the island’s new leadership and its administration to heightened scrutiny from a parliament dominated by lawmakers favouring closer ties with China, CNN reported.

The protests signal a tumultuous beginning to the presidency of Lai Ching-te, who assumed office on Monday after securing a historic third consecutive term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), known for advocating Taiwan’s sovereignty and drawing Beijing’s ire.

The scenes underscore the hurdles faced by Lai’s nascent administration in the absence of a parliamentary majority, with control now in the hands of two opposition groups, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), as reported by CNN.

Demonstrators expressed outrage over what they perceive as an expedited attempt by the KMT and TPP to rush a bill through the legislature, granting sweeping powers to the parliament for enhanced oversight over the executive branch.

Symbolising their dissent, some protesters carried sunflowers, reminiscent of the 2014 student-led protest movement when hundreds occupied the legislature for weeks, opposing the KMT’s contentious trade deal with China. These protests played a pivotal role in the subsequent electoral defeat of the KMT, which has since failed to regain the presidency.

The proposed legislation introduces a new criminal offence of “contempt of parliament,” allowing fines or imprisonment for government officials, including the president, found making false statements to the legislature. Officials could also face penalties for refusing to answer questions, provide documents, or withhold information during hearings.

Critics argue that these measures could compel officials to disclose sensitive information related to diplomacy and defence or risk criminal repercussions, potentially compromising national security.

The DPP has accused the opposition of attempting to railroad the bill without adequate time for policy deliberations. Conversely, the KMT and TPP assert that the legislation is essential to enhance government accountability and combat corruption, citing similar checks and balances in other democracies worldwide. They accuse the DPP of spreading misinformation and stalling legislative progress.

The deep political polarization manifested in a physical altercation on the parliamentary floor last Friday, with lawmakers engaging in a brawl, resulting in injuries and hospitalizations.

As the parliament reconvened on Tuesday to discuss the bill, protesters congregated outside the Legislative Yuan, enduring heavy rain showers throughout the day. Many joined after completing their school and work obligations, with organizers estimating over 30,000 participants, as reported by CNN.

Some protesters brandished signs denouncing the legislative process as a “black box” and demanding the withdrawal of the bill. Chants of “No discussions, no democracy!” echoed through the crowd.

Ricky Li, a 28-year-old office worker, expressed concerns about the bill’s vague language and lack of consultation. He fears potential abuses of power by legislators and worries about the lack of transparency surrounding the bill’s drafting.

Given the current cross-strait tensions and the recent change in government, Li emphasizes the gravity of the opposition’s assault on Taiwan’s democratic institutions and political stability.

Discussions on the bill are slated to resume in the legislature on Friday.

Meanwhile, Lai, a 64-year-old former doctor and vice president, assumed office alongside new Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim, a former top envoy to the United States. Both leaders and their party are staunchly opposed by Beijing for their advocacy of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

China’s ruling Communist Party considers Taiwan part of its territory and has vowed to reunify the island, by force if necessary, despite Taiwan’s self-governance for decades, CNN reported.