Financial Times

Taiwan democracy rises above bickering

By Kathrin Hille in Taipei
Published: March 27 2005

It was a good weekend for Liao Wen-yen. A massive protest in Taipei on Saturday against China's anti-secession law, which organisers said drew 1m people on to the streets, provided the garbage truck driver who collects banners and posters from demonstrations and election rallies with many new trophies.

Inflatable plastic clubs with “Peace” printed on them, a handmade cardboard sign bearing the warning “Chinese hooligans, watch out”, and a dirty paper slip with the words “Are Taiwanese really not Chinese? You better go and test your DNA” are now displayed in Mr Liao's crammed living room. They bear witness to the island's lively democracy.

After China's National People's Congress passed the anti-secession law two weeks ago, enshrining Beijing's claim of sovereignty and its threat of military force in the event of the island's formal independence, Taiwan's various political parties have shown little consensus about how they can respond.

Pro-independence groups demand a referendum and counter-legislation enshrining the island's claim of independence.

The Kuomintang, the largest opposition party, says the government's provocative anti-China policies in the past are to blame for Beijing's move, and is independently sending emissaries to the mainland. Chiang Pin-kung, vice-chairman, will today lead the party's first official delegation to China since the KMT-led government fled the mainland in 1949.

Meanwhile the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) has taken a middle road, condemning China's legislation as an aggressive act but refraining from actions that could inflame tensions.

The weekend rally was an attempt by the DPP to overcome divisions and keep up pressure on the international community to oppose China's move.

“More than one million Taiwanese people walked the streets of Taipei to express opposition against Beijing's so-called ‘anti-secession law', and to show love for their homeland of Taiwan,” the party said in a statement.

But politicians were already quarrelling over the event even before the crowds dispersed. Ma Ying-jeou, Taipei city mayor and a senior KMT politician, lamely tried to downplay the success of the rally by saying the police estimated the number of participants at no more than 275,000.

The Taiwan Solidarity Union, the most progressively pro-independence party in parliament, complained that banners demanding a new constitution and a declaration of independence had been banned by organisers.

Others criticised candidates for county magistrate and mayoral elections, scheduled for November, for abusing the march as a campaign rally.

But participants and political observers said the peaceful gathering was the most powerful statement Taiwan could make. David Lin, a marketing manager at a local telecoms company who took part in the march, said he decided to come although he did not support President Chen Shui-bian.

“I feel his rhetoric about loving Taiwan and the threat from China is somewhat exaggerated. But if we don't protest against the mainland passing a law which is in total denial of reality that [Taiwan is] not a Chinese province but a country of our own we will become [the world's] laughing stock.” Other participants said the different views were the best proof of Taiwan's democratic way of life. “If we were part of China, we could not possibly be doing this today,” said Angela Yeh, a sales agent who had come with her family. China's state-controlled media condemned the event. The Xinhua news agency said: “Taiwan independence forces were trying to stir up popular resentment against China, and organising a political carnival was a useless waste of money.”

As Taiwan enters a period of campaigning ahead of elections for the National Assembly in early May, the DPP can be expected to use the pictures and slogans from the demonstration to increase voter turnout.

But observers have also expressed relief that the ruling party has stayed clear of radical anti-China moves. “It is encouraging that the DPP has managed to mobilise people without having emotions get out of hand,” said Emile Sheng, of Soochow University in Taipei.