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Taiwan leader calls for independence vote

Staff and wires
August 3, 2002

TAIPEI, Taiwan --Taiwan's President has turned up the cross-strait rhetoric, backing legislation for an independence referendum and referring to China and Taiwan as two countries -- echoing comments made by his predecessor three years ago that infuriated Beijing.

Speaking from the Presidential Office on Saturday and discussing the Taiwan-China relationship via a video-link to Taiwan nationals living in Japan, Chen said, "Simply put, with Taiwan and China on each side of the [Taiwan] Strait, each side is a country. This needs to be clear."

"Our Taiwan is not something that belongs to someone else. Our Taiwan is not someone else's local government. Our Taiwan is not someone else's province," The Associated Press news agency quoted Chen as saying.

Using the Taiwanese language, not Mandarin which was brought over to Taiwan by the Chinese Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek, Chen went on to call for support for a referendum to decide whether the island should declare independence from China.

"Holding a referendum is a basic human right that cannot be deprived or restricted," Reuters news agency quoted Chen as saying.

"I want to sincerely urge and encourage everybody to seriously consider the importance and urgency of passing legislation on a referendum."

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and an inseparable part of China. Beijing has threatened in the past that any moves made by Taipei to declare formal independence or shun reunification talks would be met by force.

As both sides continue the military and diplomatic rivalry which began with their split at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the two economies have gradually become more intertwined.

'Taiwan stands up'

Chen's comments were his toughest since taking office in May 2000. At the end of Saturday's speech, Reuters reported that the Taiwan leader stood and punched his right hand in the air as the master of ceremonies shouted, "Taiwan stands up!" and "Taiwan walks its own path!"

The tone of his speech was similar to a statement made by former President Lee Teng-hui, who said in July 1999 that Taiwan and China have a "special state-to-state" relationship.

Lee's words angered China, which in turn accused the president of taking Taiwan on a reckless path towards independence. The 1999 speech triggered a round of intense saber rattling with Beijing sending fighter jet sorties above the Taiwan Strait.

Current leader Chen drew an almost spontaneous stinging response from opposition party leaders after Saturday's speech.

Nationalist Party Chairman Lien Chan warned that the comments would only bring "disaster and threats," ETTV Cable News reported, while James Soong, head of the People First Party, accused Chen of speaking recklessly.

Passing a law on an independence referendum would be difficult as the powerful opposition is against such a plebiscite.

Saturday's video-link was the latest in a series of speeches in which Chen has warned China to work with him to improve relations, otherwise the island may "walk down its own Taiwanese road."