Taiwan protesters occupy parliament over China trade pact

Activists occupy the Taiwanese Parliament in Taipei early on March 19, 2014 to protest moves by the ruling Kuomintang party to ratify a contentious trade agreement with China.

TAIPEI - Hundreds of Taiwanese activists were locked in a tense standoff with police Wednesday after they stormed the parliament to try to stop the government ratifying a contentious trade agreement with China.

Around 200 protesters - mostly young students - broke through security barriers and took over parliament's main chamber on Tuesday night, in the first such occupation of the building in the island's history.

The protesters barricaded the doorways with piles of armchairs, blocking out hundreds of policemen who failed to push their way in early Wednesday and end the occupation.

By Wednesday afternoon some 2,000 police including riot officers had encircled the parliament, Taipei police chief Wang Cho-chung said, attempting to keep order as hundreds more protesters swarmed into the parliament's grounds.

Parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng called for calm after one policeman was hospitalised following the early morning scuffle, while at least ten other officers received treatment for minor injuries.

"We will try to resolve this peacefully," Wang told reporters.

"We urge the public to be calm and rational and exercise self-restraint so the parliament can resume its normal functions and review the service trade pact." Signed in July, the pact is designed to further open trade in services between China and Taiwan, which split 65 years ago after a civil war.

But the protesters say the agreement will damage Taiwan's economy and leave it vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing.

Inside the chamber the protesters sang and waved placards, while stacking up large supplies of food and water as they vowed to stay put for days.

They have accused the ruling Kuomintang party of "illegal" moves to ratify the agreement, and are demanding a clause-by-clause review.

"The trade pact must not be approved without careful deliberation and scrutiny in parliament," a student leader said.

Banners and placards reading "Sell out Taiwan" and "Surrender Pact" were unfurled outside parliament as more demonstrators gathered, chanting slogans demanding an apology from President Ma Ying-jeou.

"I think Taiwan will be opening too much with the service trade pact and it is not fair for us. I don't want Taiwan to become the next Hong Kong to fall under the control of China," said student Shih Yi-chang.

The pact passed the first hurdle in parliament on Monday after it was approved by a committee in spite of opposition from some lawmakers.

The committee's approval - the first of three ratifications needed to pass the bill - sparked a brawl between rival lawmakers and prompted three legislators from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) to announce a 70-hour hunger strike.

The China-sceptic DPP has pledged to mobilise supporters when parliament holds a full session on Friday for the second review of the bill.

The pact is one of the follow-up agreements to a sweeping Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement signed in 2010 to reduce trade barriers between China and Taiwan.

Under the latest deal, China will open 80 service sectors to Taiwanese companies, while Taiwan will allow Chinese investment in 64 sectors.

Ma has overseen a marked thaw in relations with China since he came to power in 2008, pledging to strengthen trade and tourism links.

China has emerged as the island's leading trade partner, while dozens of agreements between the two have been signed on everything from transport to earthquake monitoring.

But China still considers Taiwan as part of its territory awaiting reunification - by force if necessary.