New Legislation Brings Taipei, Beijing Closer

Taiwan has taken new steps to bring its economy and its universities closer to mainland China. The island's legislature passed landmark measures this week that advocates say will bring economic and social benefits.

Taiwan's legislature ratified a key economic agreement with China known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, and it passed amendments to allow a limited number of mainland students to attend the island's universities.

By far the biggest measure is the economic agreement, which Taipei and Beijing signed in June. In it, China makes tariff concessions on more than 500 Taiwan products, while Taiwan grants concessions to just over 250 mainland items. China will also open markets in 11 service sectors while Taiwan will offer wider access in seven areas.

The majority Kuomintang party overrode opposition concerns about becoming too reliant on China to ratify the agreement early this week. The tariff concessions go effect into January.

And on Thursday, legislature approved the education plan. The opposition, however, placed limitations on mainland students, who will not be able to work during their stay. They will be barred from pursuing degrees related to national security, and will not be able to take Taiwan's tests for professional licenses or become civil servants.

Still, the legislation marks a milestone in Taiwan-China academic exchanges.

Political scientist Yang Tai-shuenn of Taipei's Chinese Culture University says Taiwan's universities backed the plan.

"This is a policy very much welcome by the private universities. As you know the birth rate in Taiwan decline in the past two decades, so they push the government to open the gate for Chinese students to come."

Starting early next year, a few thousand Chinese university students will be welcomed to Taiwan.

While the education measure is popular among academics, the economic agreement is more contentious. Many opposition politicians and supporters fear Taiwan businesses will become too dependent on China. And there are fears that China's lower-cost labor and vast factory systems will overwhelm Taiwan companies.

Many business leaders, however, argued in favor of the economic deal, saying it will make it easier for the island to compete, since it will have greater access to China, the world's second-largest economy.

Taiwan and China have been separately governed since 1949, when Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to China. Cross-strait relations have historically been hostile. But since President Ma Ying-jeou came to office in 2008, the two sides have been forging closer economic ties. There have also been more cultural and academic exchanges.