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Taiwan's President Maintains Hard Line

Chen Rebukes China in Interview

By Philip P. Pan and David E. Hoffman
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 29 -- President Chen Shui-bian declared Monday that his narrow reelection victory was a mandate from voters to press ahead with an aggressive agenda to develop Taiwan as an "independent, sovereign country" despite the risk of war with China.

In his first interview since an attempt on his life and an election his opponents are contesting, Chen vowed to go forward with plans to write a new constitution for Taiwan within two years, a move China has said could compel it to seize the island by force. He also condemned the Chinese government for blocking popular demands for democratic reform in Hong Kong, saying its actions have made the Taiwanese people even more determined to reject unification on Beijing's terms.

"The fundamental reason I won this presidential election . . . is because there is a rising Taiwan identity and it has been solidified," Chen said. "I think the Beijing authorities should take heed of this fact and accept the reality." "I think we have reached an internal consensus that insists on Taiwan being an independent, sovereign country," he added.

Chen's defiant remarks, delivered little more than a week after he was shot in the abdomen and suffered a flesh wound while waving at supporters from his motorcade, signaled an intent to carry his campaign's tough line toward China into a second term despite the deep divide his approach has created in Taiwanese society and the unease it has caused in the Bush administration.

The United States has pledged to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack, but officials have expressed concern that Chen's plan to draft a new constitution might draw U.S. forces into a military confrontation with China. The Chinese government claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has threatened to seize it if it formally declares independence. It has said a new constitution could amount to such a declaration.

But Chen said the new constitution had nothing to do with Taiwan's independence. Instead, he said, it aims to deepen democratic reform and improve governance by lowering the voting age, adding new human rights guarantees, reducing the size of the legislature and settling other disputes that have left the island's government gridlocked. He also offered to hold talks with China without any preconditions.

Chen, who appeared relaxed and confident during a one-hour interview inside the presidential palace, also denied unsubstantiated charges by his opponents that he engaged in election fraud and staged the shooting the day before the March 20 election to win sympathy from voters. He defeated his opponent, Nationalist Party leader Lien Chan, by a margin of less than 30,000 votes, or 0.2 percent, of the 13 million ballots cast.

Chen expressed sympathy for his opponents but urged them to accept the will of the people. "Even if you just win by one vote, you still win. And even if you lose by one vote, you still lose, and everybody must accept such a result," he said.

He also said the shooting has made him more determined. "For me personally, I have just completed the last election of my lifetime. The day before the election, I also trod the fine line of death. And that had a great impact on my life philosophy and my attitude toward my political career," he said. "I will not be knocked down or defeated so easily."

After a week of protests, Chen agreed Saturday to Lien's demands to set up a special task force to investigate the shooting and allow the courts to conduct an island-wide recount. A team of international experts has joined the shooting probe, which has identified no suspects; the recount could begin this week.

Chen acknowledged that he was reelected by a small margin and that his referendum proposals on relations with China -- which asked voters about strengthening Taiwan's military and opening talks with the mainland -- failed. But the 54-year-old lawyer noted that he won the support of 1.5 million more voters than in 2000, when he was elected with only 39 percent of the vote. He attributed the increase in his support to 50.1 percent to a growing sense among Taiwanese that they are citizens of a new, independent nation separate from China.

Chen's comments came days after Beijing issued an unusually strong warning that it would not tolerate turmoil in Taiwan and announced plans to issue a legal ruling as early as Friday that could quash growing demands in Hong Kong for direct elections to choose the territory's leaders. By speaking out at such a sensitive moment and drawing a link between Taiwan's future and China's approach in Hong Kong, Chen raised the stakes for those in the Communist Party leadership who want to stifle the pro-democracy movement in the territory.

"In Taiwan, we have full democracy, and our freedom and democracy are fully protected," he said. "We do not wish to return to the era of authoritarianism. We don't want our freedoms to be restricted or taken away. . . .

"Right now, the people of Hong Kong are fighting for direct elections for their chief executive and general elections for the entire legislature, but the Beijing authorities are unable to consent," Chen said. "They even say, 'Wait another 30 years and we'll see.' I think this is very ridiculous.

"For the 23 million people of Taiwan, this is the greatest warning, and also the clearest signal. 'One country, two systems' is totally unattractive to the Taiwan people," he added, referring to the formula under which Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and which Beijing says Taiwan must eventually accept. "What has happened in Hong Kong has shown that this system, this formula, is a total failure."

Chen said Taiwan has noted "major problems" with Beijing's administration of Hong Kong, recalling that about 500,000 people turned out there for a demonstration last July "because they felt their freedom and democracy had been infringed upon."

The Chinese government refused to hold talks with Chen during his first term because he would not endorse its "one China" principle, which holds that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it. Chen said he would continue to reject the principle in his second term because Beijing defines "one China" as the People's Republic of China and Taiwan as a local government, "which is totally unacceptable to our people."

But Chen also said he wanted to set aside his differences with China on Taiwan's status and begin negotiations to improve cross-strait relations, including establishing political ties, opening direct air and shipping links and reducing military tensions. Taiwanese companies have already invested as much as $100 billion in the mainland, and hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live at least part of the year in China. China suspended bilateral talks in 1999.

If the Chinese government insists on the "one China" principle as a precondition for talks, Chen said, Taiwan will answer that China must recognize it as a separate country. "Then, I believe the two sides will be forever deadlocked, major differences cannot be solved and it will be impossible for both sides to sit down and talk," he said. "We understand this in our hearts. So don't raise the 'one China' principle."

Chen also repeated an offer he made four years ago to discuss the possibility of Taiwan's eventual unification with China, and announced he had set up a task force to improve relations with the mainland. "The so-called 'one China' does not exist now. Perhaps it will in the future," he said. "We should all be able to sit together and deal with the future 'one China' issue together."

Chen defended his plan to write a new constitution for Taiwan, approve it in a referendum in 2006 and enact it by 2008, when Beijing is scheduled to host the Summer Olympics. China has argued that a new constitution would sever Taiwan's legal ties with the mainland, and senior Chinese military officers have declared that China is willing to go to war against Taiwan over the issue, even if it means a global boycott of the Games.

The constitution "is not a timetable for independence or any attempt to change our status quo," Chen said. "Our future efforts at re-engineering our constitution and constitutional reforms will be only done on the principle of not changing the status quo."

Asked how he would address China's buildup of missiles and other military capabilities aimed at Taiwan, Chen said he would continue to strengthen Taiwan's military and expand its defense and "counter-strike" forces. But he said he would not be drawn into an arms race with China. He also said Taiwan would not develop offensive weapons to deter a Chinese attack, as some military experts have urged as a cheaper alternative to defensive systems.

Instead, he said, Taiwan's democracy would help it stand up to Chinese aggression. "I think democracy, and by insisting on having a democratic Taiwan, is the greatest defense and the best arms that we have in the face of China's military threat," he said.