Reporting from Taipei, Taiwan —
Tens of thousands of Taiwanese marched on the streets of Taipei on Saturday to protest a trade agreement with China that is being called the most important deal between the two sides since they split after a civil war ended in 1949.
The government says the accord, to be signed this week, will give a much-needed boost to Taiwan's economy. But critics charge that it will benefit mostly big businesses here and will make it difficult for Taiwanese workers and small businesses to compete with an influx of cheaper Chinese goods.
"It's useless to get our products into China tariff-free anyway because China's products are cheaper," said fisherman Chang Fu-meng, 50, who attended the protest march with his wife.
But at the heart of the protesters' fears is that the trade agreement will lead Taiwan down the road to reunification with Beijing, which sees the island as a Chinese province.
More immediately, critics worry that the island could share the fate of Hong Kong, where big businesses with investments in China can influence what scholars and even newspapers say about China and human rights issues.
"We're a free place. Once they come here, it will change our way of life," said Chen Mei-chu, a resident of Taipei, the capital.
Police estimated the crowd at 32,000, while the opposition Democratic Progressive Party put it at up to 100,000.
Known as the economic cooperation framework agreement, the pact is to be signed Tuesday in the Chinese city of Chongqing. The deal will immediately reduce or eliminate tariffs on about 800 types of exports — more than 500 of which are from Taiwan, and only about 250 from China.
The deal will also allow both sides greater access to each other's markets. Taiwan's banks, for instance, will be able to set up branches in China and do yuan business. China also agreed to allow an unlimited number of Taiwanese films to be shown as long as they pass the scrutiny of censors, Taiwanese officials said.
Taiwan's government has insisted that the deal is important for the export-dependent island's economic survival. Despite decades of animosity, the similar language and culture between the two sides have helped make China Taiwan's biggest trade partner and export market. Trade between the two sides reached $80 billion in 2009; it was at $100 billion before the economic downturn.
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says the deal is about economics, not politics, and that Taiwan's democracy can fend off undue pressure from Beijing.
"We are of course aware of the political ambitions of mainland China toward us during this period, but we cannot let this make us afraid, pull back or avoid trying to move forward," Ma said during a recent televised debate on the trade deal. "We have confidence in Taiwan, in Taiwan businesses and in Taiwan's democracy."
Sui is a special correspondent.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing contributed to this report.