Taiwan's president asks protesters to talk over trade deal
CNN — A week after students seized Taiwan's legislative building over a controversial trade deal with China, Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou agreed to meet with protest leaders to help end the standoff and allow the legislature to get back on track, a spokesperson for the president's office said.
Ma is willing to invite representatives of the movement to his office "without any preconditions," Li Jia-fei, a spokesperson for the president's office said Tuesday in a statement.
Hundreds of protesters, many of them university students, have been camped out in the Legislative Yuan's main assembly hall since March 18, over a service trade pact that they say could harm Taiwan's economy and allow China to exert greater influence over the island. Thousands more have gathered outside the building, according to organizers.
At a press conference on Tuesday night, student leader Lin Fei-fan responded to the president's invitation, saying the protesters agreed that no preconditions should be set for the meeting.
But, he added, the students wanted to discuss whether Taiwan needed new legislation to monitor all cross-strait agreements, and whether the service trade pact with China should be delayed until that legislation is introduced.
On Wednesday, Lin said the students were rejecting the president's invitation for now as it failed to include a fixed date or time for the talks, or concrete content for discussion. He told CNN that the protesters inside the Legislative Yuan had no plans to leave.
"We are willing to talk, but we really hope to see the president express sincerity," Lin said in a statement on his Facebook page.
The president's office confirmed to CNN that the students had not yet accepted the invitation.
Taiwan signed the service trade pact with China, its biggest trade partner in June last year, but it is yet to be ratified. The agreement will open up 80 of China's service sectors to Taiwan and 64 of Taiwan's service sectors to China, including tourism, transport, construction and telecommunications.
A review of the deal was delayed in Taiwan's legislature until March 17, when Taiwan's ruling party Kuomintang pushed the pact forward without bipartisan deliberation. The main opposition said that this move broke an agreement that all legislators would consider the deal one clause at a time.
Protesters, who claimed negotiations over the deal were opaque and undemocratic, broke into the legislative building in Taipei the next day, demanding that the pact be scrapped.
The demonstration has been mostly peaceful, but tensions boiled over late Sunday, when a group of protesters stormed the nearby executive building. More than 100 people were injured when riot police armed with wooden batons and shields evicted the protesters and dispersed the crowd using water cannon.
Hours before the scuffle, Taiwan's president defended the deal in his first public address to the protests. Calling on the protesters to adhere to the rule of law, Ma said the pact would create jobs for young people and that without regional economic integration, Taiwan would be left behind.
Student leader Lin Fei-fan,speaking to CNN by phone from inside the legislature building Monday, criticized the pact. He claimed the deal would allow China to invest in "sensitive and core industries" including those associated with press freedom, such as publishing and advertising.
Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War, but Beijing still considers it a breakaway province, and has warned that any formal declaration of independence could lead to military intervention.
However, cross-strait ties have improved since Ma took office in 2008, and recent high-level talks between the two sides have been hailed as a sign of thawing relations.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, Marie Harf told reporters that the United States has welcomed steps by Taiwan and China to reduce tensions and improve relations, and hopes that talks over the trade deal can be conducted "peacefully and civilly."
"We certainly support Taiwan's vibrant democracy, which allows for this kind of robust political dialogue," Harf said.
The protests have garnered widespread support among Taiwanese living abroad. Rallies are being held in at least 10 countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.
CNN's Esther Pang and Karen Chiu contributed to this report.