Bill giving sweeping powers to lawmakers sparks protests in Taiwan

The pro-China Kuomintang says change is needed, but critics say the bill could subvert the island's democracy.
By Huang Chun-mei for RFA Mandarin
Bill giving sweeping powers to lawmakers sparks protests in Taiwan Kuomintang lawmaker Wu Tsung-Hsien speaks to journalists on May 23, 2024.
Kuomintang press office

A controversial move by Taiwan's Kuomintang nationalist party to push ahead with legislation that would boost the power of lawmakers at the expense of the executive branch has sparked protests demanding it be tabled amid fears it could boost Chinese influence over the democratic island's government and threaten national security.

The move by the party, which favors closer ties with China, and which now commands a majority in the parliament, drew thousands of protesters onto the streets of Taipei on Tuesday. They gathered outside the Legislative Yuan holding up placards that read "Withdraw the bill, protect our democracy!" "Selling out the people!" and "Democracy killers," the island's Central News Agency reported.

Many among the crowd were supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, whose newly elected President Lai Ching-te was sworn in on Monday. His ascension came amid increased military activity by China's People's Liberation Army around the island, which has never been ruled by Beijing, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China.

At issue is proposed legislation proposed by the Kuomintang, or KMT, and its ally, the Taiwan People's Party, or TPP, that would grant greater powers to lawmakers to investigate, sanction and demand information from the executive, businesses and the military. Critics say it would pose a national security threat, given the Kuomintang's close relationship with Beijing.

The controversy comes as the Chinese military on Thursday launched large-scale drills around Taiwan, three days after Lai took office, as “punishment” for the democratic island’s “separatist acts.”

“The drills are being conducted in the Taiwan Strait, the north, south and east of Taiwan Island, as well as areas around the islands of Kinmen, Matsu, Wuqiu, and Dongyin,” China’s defense ministry said on its website.

The Joint Sword-2024A drills combine multiple branches of the armed forces under the Eastern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and will last until Friday.

A spokesperson for the command said the exercises serve as a strong punishment for the separatist acts of what he called “Taiwan independence forces” and as a stern warning against interference and provocation by external forces -- a veiled reference to the United States and its allies.

Sweeping powers to demand info

Meanwhile, back in Taiwan, campaigners said the Kuomintang and Taiwan People's Party's bills would grant sweeping powers to lawmakers to demand information from anyone in Taiwan, including members of the public, to the extent of violating people's human rights and endangering national security.

"Article 25 of the bill touches on national security and secrets," Raymond Sung, Deputy Executive Director of Taiwan's New Constitution Foundation, told RFA Mandarin in an interview on Thursday.

"If officials are forced to go to the Legislative Yuan to answer questions about classified information ... how can there be adequate protection for state secrets?" Sung questioned.

He said the bill, if it becomes law, would place additional pressure on Lai's administration and gives sweeping powers to lawmakers to demand information.

"The extension of such powers to private business personnel could infringe on people's privacy or on corporate trade secrets," he said.

Sung said the new powers could also set the stage for further disruptive action by KMT and TPP lawmakers, for example, a refusal to pass government funding for social welfare or even the defense budget.

DPP lawmaker Su Chiao-hui was also concerned about the effect of Articles 47 and 48 on human rights.

"They would mean that the KMT and TPP would be able to require businesses to hand over trade secrets and people to hand over their private information without a search warrant," Su Chiao-hui wrote in a May 21 post on her Facebook account.

Lawmakers would also be able to demand confidential information from the military, and from judicial and intelligence agencies, Su wrote.

"Any information the KMT and TPP want, they can just reach out and take it, and send it straight to the desk of [Chinese Communist Party leader] Xi Jinping," she said.

Frozen out of agenda-setting

Campaigners have also complained that DPP lawmakers weren't allowed to see much of the detail of the bills before they were put to a vote, saying the legislation is being shoved through without respect for due democratic process, and that DPP lawmakers have been frozen out of agenda-setting since the KMT and TPP majority took effect in February.

The Kuomintang held a news conference on Thursday to defend the proposed legislation ahead of another parliamentary vote on Friday, during which protesters say they will be out in force again.

Ker Chien-ming, who heads the Democratic Progressive Party caucus in the Legislative Yuan, speaks to journalists on May 23, 2024. (RFA/Huang Chun-mei)

Kuomintang lawmaker Wu Tsung-Hsien told journalists that the DPP has allowed the executive arm of government to dominate in recent years, allowing corruption to flourish.

"The [DPP] doesn't want anyone to be able to supervise its executive power, so it doesn't want this bill to pass," Wu said, dismissing claims of a lack of transparency around the bill.

"Lawmakers were allowed to speak during the reading process, but they were unwilling to discuss the content of the bill, preferring to carry on cursing it," Wu said.

The KMT has argued that the legislative reform bills are necessary to enhance the Legislature's oversight role, bring about greater government transparency and accountability, and force the ruling party and its government officials to face and respond to public opinion. The KMT says the DPP hasn't been accountable over the past eight years due to its legislative majority, Central News Agency reported.

Timing of bill suspect

Ker Chien-ming, who heads the DDP caucus in the Legislative Yuan, said he believed the timing of the bill -- to coincide with current Chinese military activity around Taiwan -- was suspect.

"Why are they in such a hurry?" Ker wanted to know. "Are they doing this in cooperation with China?"

"Do you want the lawmakers you elected to betray your country?"

Ker suggested that the KMT and TPP were acting in a pincer movement along with the People's Liberation Army's Joint Sword military drills around Taiwan.

"The Kuomintang and the Taiwan People's Power have occupied the Legislative Yuan, and China has sent its military to surround Taiwan -- how will this be seen by the international community?" Ker wanted to know.

As protesters gathered outside the Legislative Yuan on Tuesday, lawmakers inside were discussing amendments that would allow government personnel who refuse to answer lawmakers' questions to be held criminally liable or face impeachment, Central News Agency reported.

They were also debating amendments removing secret ballots on government appointments, as well as broad-reaching access to official documents, the report said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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