TAIPEI - The last time Taiwanese students mobilised en masse, they brought about an end to decades of martial rule. Now, they are scenting victory in a new battle for the island's soul as they repel government plans to embrace China ever closer.
For both sides, the debate about strengthening trade ties with the giant mainland is an existential one. President Ma Ying-jeou says that without his mooted pact in services, the economy of heavily export-reliant Taiwan risks sliding into irrelevancy.
For the students, however, Ma is selling their homeland cheaply to a bullying neighbour that still regards Taiwan as its rightful property. After ending a three-week occupation of parliament late Thursday, they threatened more "comprehensive" action unless their demands are met.
"Whatever the fate of the agreement, by any standard, the movement itself is already a setback to Ma's cross-strait policies," political scientist George Tsai of the Chinese University in Taipei told AFP.
"From now on, any government measures relating to the Chinese mainland are set to be scrutinised and held up to the strictest standards," he said.
The president, from the nationalist Kuomintang party, has overseen years of warming relations as he seeks to plug Taiwan into the rapid growth that has made China the world's second-largest economy.
But just two years into his second and final term, Ma has already become a "lame duck", the Taipei-based China Times said in an editorial Friday.
"The student movement for sure will cost the Kuomintang millions of votes from first-time voters," when Taiwan next goes to the polls in 2016, it said.