Int'l Herald Tribune

China back at odds with tense Taiwan

By Keith Bradsher
The New York Times
Monday, March 28, 2005

TAIPEI Anti-secession legislation passed this month by China has poisoned relations across the Taiwan Strait and changed the political landscape in Taiwan - a shift underlined by a march by hundreds of thousands of people in one of the largest political demonstrations ever on the island.

Passage of the anti-secession law has brought an abrupt halt to the honeymoon that Taiwan and China enjoyed over the winter, with both sides now back to denouncing each other almost every day.

President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party organized the march Saturday, in which he and nearly all of his ministers participated, partly to call public attention to the Chinese law and partly to discourage the European Union from lifting its arms embargo against Beijing.

Chanting "protect democracy, love peace, safeguard Taiwan," demonstrators denounced the law, which was adopted on March 14 by the Communist Party-controlled National People's Congress in Beijing. It calls for the use of "non-peaceful means" to halt any attempt by Taiwan to declare formal independence from the mainland.

Even some supporters of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party, which backs closer relations with mainland China, ended up joining the march, although the party's leaders did not.

"In the past, I didn't understand the emerging situation across the Taiwan Strait," said Sue Rong-yin, a 24-year-old pharmacology student who described herself as a staunch Nationalist Party supporter who had never joined a political demonstration until Saturday. "It seems that war across the Taiwan Strait will happen at any time," she said.

Organizers said they had met their goal of attracting one million protesters, but the police put the crowd at "over 500,000."

Independent estimates were difficult because marchers converged on the avenue in front of the Presidential Palace from 10 different directions, and many demonstrators began leaving to catch buses home, even as other demonstrators arrived.

Beijing's official Xinhua press agency denounced the march.

"We are confident the Taiwan compatriots will ultimately see clearly the right and the wrong and refuse to be cheated and misguided by 'Taiwan independence' secessionist forces," said a commentary carried by Xinhua.

Taiwan has frequently been the first to raise tensions over the last several years, with Chen proposing amendments to Taiwan's constitution and changes to the legal name of state-owned companies and foreign missions. But as Taiwan officials have been saying this week, it was Beijing that started the latest dispute.

"This time we are getting the high ground; the other side is a loser, the other side is a troublemaker," Foreign Minister Chen Tan-sun said in an interview.

Mainland Chinese lawyers drafted the law last summer in response to fears in Beijing that Chen, the Taiwan president, might declare independence from the mainland. But then, the Nationalist Party did unexpectedly well in legislative elections in Taiwan in December.

Chen responded to those elections by making a series of unexpected overtures to Beijing. During Chinese New Year in late January and early February, Taiwan and China allowed the first nonstop charter flights between them since the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan after losing China's civil war in 1949.

On Feb. 24, Chen concluded a surprise political alliance with the most pro-Beijing party in Taiwan, the People First Party, a decision that prompted a half dozen of his more strongly pro-independence advisers to quit. The pact helped the president increase his influence in the Legislature, but polls showed a sharp decline in support for both parties and a steep rise in the number of voters who said they were not attracted to any of the parties.

The furor over the anti-secession law and the march on Saturday have allowed President Chen to woo back many angry independence advocates, including several of the advisers who had resigned. "It has given him an opportunity to unify our camp," said Hsiao Bi-khim, a lawmaker and the director of international affairs for the Democratic Progressive Party.

Joseph Wu, the chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, a Cabinet-level agency in charge of relations with China, said on Friday that Chinese officials must make some public declaration of respect for the wishes of the people of Taiwan before informal cross-straits contacts could resume.

In an event that showed Chen's talent for political theater, demonstrators were encouraged to bring pets and children on Saturday as they marched under light clouds down 10 different routes to converge in front of the Presidential Palace. Chen and his staff penned a song for the occasion, set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" and with lyrics in the local dialect like, "How many rocky roads must the people of Taiwan walk, before really achieving democracy?"

A five-meter-tall, or 17-foot-tall red balloon resembling a pincushion, and meant to show Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan, was deflated at the end of the demonstration, while a similar-sized, round white balloon, labeled "peace," was left standing.

Nationalist Party politicians dismissed the rally before it even began, describing it as more of a "carnival" than a political event.

Alex Tsai, a senior Nationalist Party lawmaker, said that his party would press on with plans to send a delegation to the mainland on Tuesday. The Nationalists are preparing for their chairman, Lien Chan, to visit Beijing this summer, which would make him the first Nationalist leader to do so since the end of the civil war.

But that strategy carries political risks.

Mickey Shi, a 23-year-old student and Nationalist Party supporter who, like Sue, had also never been to a political demonstration before, said he thought his party's leaders should have joined the march.

"If you think you are a party of the Taiwan people, you should stand up for them," he said.

Lai I-chung, a foreign policy analyst at the Taiwan Think Tank, a research group, said that polls were showing that over 90 percent of the Taiwanese people disliked the anti-secession law's mention of using "non-peaceful means" to regain the island.

North Korea's claim last month that it had produced nuclear weapons has prompted fears that other governments like Taiwan would develop their own if they felt threatened. Chen, the foreign minister, said in an interview that Taiwan had the scientific capability to manufacture nuclear weapons but no intention of doing so despite the recent threats from the mainland.