Taiwan’s youth protest plans by lawmakers favoring closer China ties to tighten scrutiny of president

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Thousands of mostly young protesters surrounded Taiwan’s legislature late into the night on Tuesday, protesting a push by opposition parties to subject the island’s new leader and his administration to tighter scrutiny from a parliament controlled by lawmakers who favor closer ties to China.

The protest marks a chaotic start to the presidency of Lai Ching-te, who was sworn in Monday after winning a historic third consecutive term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which champions Taiwan’s sovereignty and is loathed by Beijing.

It also illustrates the challenges Lai’s fledgling administration faces without a parliamentary majority, which is now controlled by two opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

Demonstrators are angered by what they see as the KMT and TPP’s attempt to fast track a bill through the legislature, which would grant the parliament sweeping powers to impose greater oversight over the executive branch of government.

Some protesters carried sunflowers, in a nod to the student-led protest movement in 2014 that saw hundreds of students occupying the legislature for weeks in protest against the KMT’s controversial trade deal with China. Those protests were instrumental two years later in the electoral defeat of the KMT, which has since been unable to recapture the presidency.

Under the proposed legislation, government officials could be fined or jailed under what critics say is a vaguely worded new criminal offense of “contempt of parliament,” if they were found making false statements to the legislature.

They could also be punished if they refused to answer questions or provide documents, or withheld information during hearings.

Meanwhile, the president would be required to deliver an annual address to the parliament on key policy issues.

Opponents say the proposals could force officials to disclose sensitive information to parliament – such as those relating to diplomacy and defense – or face criminal penalties. They believe this could potentially undermine the island’s security.

The DPP has also accused the opposition of trying to force through the bill without allocating sufficient time for policy deliberations.

Meanwhile, the KMT and TPP argue the new laws are needed to improve government accountability and combat corruption, pointing to similar legislative checks and balances on executive powers around the world. They also accused the DPP of spreading disinformation and trying to paralyze the legislature.

In a sign of the heated political divide, disagreements over the controversial reform bill erupted last Friday in a brawl on the parliamentary floor – a chaotic display that saw some lawmakers leaping over tables and pulling colleagues to the floor, with a few members taken to hospital.

On Tuesday, as the parliament resumed its meeting to discuss the bill, protesters gathered outside the Legislative Yuan – Taiwan’s unicameral parliament – from morning until midnight, braving downpours in the afternoon. Many joined after finishing school and work, with organizers claiming more than 30,000 participants.

Some held up signs calling the legislative process a “black box” and demanding the bill to be withdrawn. Others chanted: “No discussions, no democracy!”

Ricky Li, a 28-year-old office worker, said he was worried about the bill’s vague wording and lack of consultation.

“I’m concerned that it will open the door to power abuses by the legislators … What if legislators start using the newly acquired power to wage vendettas against their political opponents?” he said, noting that the bill has not been sufficiently discussed and lacks transparency.

“Given the current circumstances of cross-strait relations and that a new government just took office, the opposition’s assault on Taiwan’s democratic institutions and political foundation warrants our attention.”

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

Lai, 64, a former doctor and vice president, was inaugurated Monday alongside new Vice President Hsiao Bi-khim, who recently served as Taiwan’s top envoy to the United States.

Both leaders and their party are openly loathed by Beijing for championing Taiwan’s sovereignty. China’s ruling Communist Party says the self-ruling democracy is part of its territory, despite never having controlled it, and has vowed to take the island, by force if necessary.

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