TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators took to the streets of Taipei on Sunday to protest the policies of Taiwan's China-friendly president, in the largest anti-government action since he was re-elected to a second four-year term a year ago.
Waving green-colored banners emblazoned with the two Chinese characters for "fury" — the theme of the protest — demonstrators called on President Ma Ying-jeou to fire Prime Minister Sean Chen over the lackluster economic performance of the island, which saw growth of less than 2 percent in 2012.
They also demanded that government regulatory bodies stop a consortium widely seen as pro-China from purchasing a mass-circulation newspaper, and called for the convening of an all-party conference to discuss Taiwan's ailing social security and pension systems.
"The economic situation is very bad," said one of the protesters, 29-year-old Andy Chen, who recently returned to Taiwan after several years studying abroad. "It's very difficult for college graduates to find jobs. The government needs to do a lot more."
Organizers from the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party estimated the crowd at 150,000, though Associated Press journalists on the scene put the number at no more than 50,000. There was no immediate estimate from police.
Since Ma's re-election, his popularity has plummeted amid the failure of his China-oriented economic program to show results and nagging unease over Taiwan's increasing orientation toward the mainland. Ma — whose approval rating now stands at around 15 percent — insists that tying the island's high-tech industries ever closer to China's lucrative markets is the best way for Taiwan to avoid economic marginalization.
Sixty-three years after Taiwan separated from the mainland following a protracted civil war, relations with Beijing remain the key issue in Taiwanese politics. Opposition supporters say Ma's China-friendly policies are gradually eroding Taiwan's democratic freedoms and paving the way to the eventual loss of the island's de facto independence. Ma rejects the charges, insisting that no changes to the island's political status will occur on his watch.
A current bone of contention revolves around the efforts of a Taiwanese consortium widely seen as pro-China to acquire a popular mass-circulation newspaper.
Over the past few weeks, students have taken to the streets to oppose the deal to buy Next Media, claiming it would concentrate too much media power in the hands of Tsai Eng-meng, a pro-China businessman who already owns a popular cable TV news station and another mass-circulation paper.
Tsai, one of the three members of the consortium, attracted widespread criticism a year ago when he disputed generally accepted accounts that hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by Chinese security forces in the area of Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Regulators will eventually rule on the deal to buy Next Media.