Fistfighting lawmakers and protests mar start of Taiwan’s new administration

Thousands protesting outside parliament, lawmakers tackling and punching each other inside — it’s not the peace and unity Taiwan’s new president called for when he took office this week.

The democratic, self-ruled island, facing growing pressure from China, is roiling over a controversial bill that critics say could make it easier for Beijing to interfere with Taiwan’s domestic affairs.

The impassioned reaction highlights the tense political atmosphere in Taiwan as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, enters an unprecedented third term in the presidency. Some fear the party’s confrontational stance toward China could provoke an attack, while its supporters argue that close collaboration with Beijing could cede too much power to the Communist Party.

Beijing considers Taiwan a part of its territory and has vowed to reunify it with the mainland and to achieve that goal by force if necessary.

On Friday, tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the parliamentary building for a third time, objecting to the bill that would subject government officials and private companies to questioning by legislators — or fines or imprisonment.

The bill, if passed, would significantly curtail the power of President Lai Ching-te, who would also be subject to an annual policy report by the legislature.

Proponents of the proposal, backed by two opposition parties — the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People’s Party, also known as the KMT and TPP — say it is necessary to improve government accountability.

Critics argue the bill is being rushed through without proper procedures and that forcing sensitive disclosures would be unconstitutional and could undermine national security. One fear is that those targeted by China will have their private information exposed.

“This sets the tone for how Taiwan’s domestic politics are going to look like under a Lai administration,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “It’s going to be chaotic, and there’s going to be very little that the DPP is going to be able to do.”

Lai, the former vice president also known by his English name, William, won election in January with 40% of the vote. His predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, held office for the maximum of two four-year terms. But the DPP lost its majority in the legislature, signaling growing discontent among Taiwanese citizens with the previous administration.

Under Tsai, Taiwan grew closer to the U.S. and increasingly at odds with China, which on Thursday launched two days of military drills around the island in a show of displeasure with the new president.

At his inauguration Monday, Lai called on China to cease its military and political intimidation, and said neither side was subordinate to the other. He emphasized his goal to maintain the status quo but also stressed Taiwan’s autonomy, prompting an angry rebuke from Beijing.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office denounced Lai for promoting “separatist fallacies” and for advocating Taiwanese independence. The country also sanctioned three U.S. defense contractors for providing weapons to Taiwan.

Growing fears of military conflict have heightened political divisions within the island of 23 million.

As China ratchets up military drills and courts the friendship of opposition lawmakers, that’s increased concerns that the bill could be used to benefit the Chinese government by revealing private information, said Ming-sho Ho, a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University.

“For many Taiwanese people, you see China pressuring Taiwan both from without and also from within,” Ho said. “People are genuinely worried.”

On Friday, protesters chanted their disapproval from the street while legislators reviewed the bill. Some demonstrators waved signs that said “no discussion, no democracy,” while others sported yellow and black headbands printed with demands to increase transparency and reevaluate the bill point by point.

Chen Chun-xia, a 60-year-old retiree, said she was concerned that the reforms would enable legislators to interrogate her family over their manufacturing business in Taiwan. It was her first time at the protests, and she was expecting a dozen more family members to join her in the evening after work.

“I knew I had to be here when I saw the news,” she said. “This is for my family, for the next generation.”

Calvin Lin, 37, and Monica Chen, 34, who arrived at Friday’s demonstration together, met a decade ago during Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, a massive protest against a bill to boost trade with China. At that time, the KMT held the presidency and the legislative majority but withdrew the bill after student protesters physically occupied the national legislature for three weeks.

This week’s protests have been more organized, Lin said, and he doesn’t expect the legislature to recall the bill. However, he hopes the demonstrations will encourage more dialogue around governmental reforms. He wore a strip of cloth around his arm that said “Taiwan can only improve without the KMT,” the same slogan he remembers from 10 years ago.

“The most important thing is that the process and the system are fair and healthy,” Lin said, who plans to return to protest with his friends in the coming days. “At least open up the dialogue. That’s the bare minimum.”

“Of course, the parliament can reform, but it’s important to have proper proceedings and discussions,” Chen added.

The first round of discussions, on May 17, turned violent as some lawmakers tried to stop the proceedings. People punched, shoved and tackled each other; five legislators were sent to the hospital.

This week, a group of 30 academics, former U.S. officials and other critics of the reforms released a joint statement that said the proposal grants the legislature excessive power compared with other constitutional democracies and has not been allowed sufficient review by the public or DPP lawmakers.

The KMT has defended the bill as a way to curb corruption and improve checks and balances within Taiwan’s government. At a Thursday news conference, party members said the proposed measures have nothing to do with cross-strait relations and lambasted the DPP for “fearmongering.”

Despite the protests, the KMT and TPP, which make up the majority of the legislature, have enough support to pass the bill when the session continues Tuesday.

“I think the opposition party has made it known that it is going to use its majority for its political purposes,” said Ho, the National Taiwan University professor, “and this is only the beginning.”

Yang is a Times staff writer and Wu a special correspondent.

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