Hundreds of Thousands Stage Mass Rally in Taiwan
|By Keith Bradsher
Published: March 26, 2005
TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 26 - Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese marched on Saturday afternoon to denounce Beijing in one of the largest political demonstrations ever here, the clearest sign yet of how China’s anti-secession legislation has poisoned relations across the Taiwan Strait.
The size of the demonstration showed how much the political landscape has changed since the Communist Party-controlled National People’s Congress in Beijing approved a law on March 14 calling for the use of "non-peaceful means" to halt any Taiwanese attempt to declare independence from the mainland. Even some supporters of the opposition Nationalist Party here, which backs closer relations with the mainland, joined the march, although the party’s leaders did not.
"In the past, I didn’t understand the emerging situation across the Taiwan Strait - it seems that war across the Taiwan Strait will happen at any time," 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.
Organizers said they had met their goal of attracting a million protesters, though the police put the crowd at more than 500,000. Most politicians and analysts are not nearly so pessimistic as Ms. Sue about the actual prospects for conflict. But passage of the anti-secession law has brought an abrupt halt to the honeymoon that Taiwan and China had enjoyed over the winter, with both sides now back to denouncing each other almost every day.
Beijing’s official New China News Agency denounced the march before it started, carrying a prominent story on Saturday morning contending that Taiwanese advocates of independence "malevolently distorted" the anti-secession law.
Mainland lawyers drafted the law last summer, in response to fears that President Chen Shui-bian might declare Taiwan’s independence from the mainland. But then the Nationalist Party did unexpectedly well in legislative elections in December.
President Chen responded to those elections by making a series of unexpected overtures to Beijing. Over Chinese New Year in late January and early February, Taiwan and China allowed the first direct charter flights between them since the Nationalists retreated here after losing China’s civil war in 1949.
On Feb. 24, President Chen concluded a surprise political alliance with the most pro-Beijing party here, the People First Party, prompting 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.
In an event that showed President Chen Shui-bian’s talent for political theater, demonstrators were encouraged to bring pets and children on Saturday as they marched under light clouds down 10 routes to converge in front of the Presidential Palace. President Chen and his staff wrote a song for the occasion, set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s "Blowing in the Wind" and with lyrics in the Taiwanese language like, "How many rocky roads must the people of Taiwan walk, before really achieving democracy?"
President Chen himself joined the march, breaking a long tradition here of sitting presidents not participating in political demonstrations. A 15-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. Alex Tsai, a senior Nationalist Party lawmaker, dismissed the rally, saying it "really looks like a carnival or festival; it’s not really a political rally."
Mr. Tsai said his party would press on with plans to send a delegation to Beijing on Tuesday. The Nationalists are preparing for their chairman, Lien Chan, to visit the mainland 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. Another student in the crowd, Mickey Shi, a 23-year-old Nationalist Party supporter who also had never been to a political demonstration before, said that 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 here, said 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 of a race by other countries like Taiwan to develop their own if they felt threatened. Foreign Minister Chen Tan-sun 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.
The United States, which guarantees Taiwan’s security, has forcefully and repeatedly warned Taiwan against developing nuclear weapons, and forced the island to dismantle a secret nuclear program in the 1970’s after the Central Intelligence Agency learned of it.