- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan — Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese rallied yesterday to demand a new constitution, to hold national referendums on issues and to show their defiance of China over its claim to be the rightful ruler of their tiny island.

Crowds with green banners of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) clogged the streets of this southern port city in what was also a show of support for President Chen Shui-bian’s bid for second four-year term.

After an afternoon of marching, performances by rock bands, children in angel wings and aboriginal dancers bedecked in neon brocade warmed up a crowd of perhaps 200,000 for the main event of the evening.

Mr. Chen appeared on stage and strolled over to a giant red book concocted to represent a new constitution, which has become the centerpiece issue of his campaign for another term. As he opened the book, the stage exploded with pyrotechnics, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony swelled, and then Mr. Chen gave China what has become his trademark tongue-lashing:

“Taiwan is not part of another country. It is not a province of another country, or a special administrative region of another country. Taiwan is one country,” he said.

The crowd roared in approval.

China claims that Taiwan is a rebel province and has threatened, on numerous occasions, to attack the island if it ever declares independence. A defiant Mr. Chen on equally numerous occasions has declared Taiwan a “sovereign and independent nation.”

He typically reserves his strongest words for political events outside the capital of Taipei, where Western reporters, and Western investors who are skittish over the threat of war with China, are unlikely to be paying attention.

“Taiwan is a sovereign and independent nation. It is not a local government of another country,” he said yesterday.

Mr. Chen faces a tough task in convincing Taiwanese voters to give him another term. Polls show him trailing Lien Chan, the candidate from the opposition Nationalist Party, who urges that Taiwan and China shelve their sovereignty dispute until the next generation and work on improving trade and other links.

Mr. Chen’s popularity suffers from a poor economy, which has been damaged by the movement of many Taiwanese factories to mainland China to take advantage of low labor costs.

His re-election strategy thus far appears focused on pushing against a series of so-called “redlines” in relations with China, and nowhere has this strategy been as readily apparent as in the address yesterday to the DPP faithful.

Mr. Chen’s call for a new constitution would touch inevitably on the issue of sovereignty, even if it addressed only the island’s formal name, the Republic of China, which dates back to 1912 and the overthrow of China’s last imperial dynasty.

Many in the DPP want to rename the island the Republic of Taiwan or simply Taiwan, which would be viewed in Beijing as a step toward de jure independence that China warns would trigger war.

“A new constitution wouldn’t have to change the country’s name, but it could if that’s what the people want,” said Mason Yang, a spokesman for the DPP in Kaohsiung.

The rally also focused on a proposed referendum law that would enable issues to be put directly before voters, much like the system in California that has led to numerous ballot initiatives, including the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When asked if it is a good idea for Taiwan to adopt California-style referendum democracy, Mr. Yang replied: “People like it. There’s a reason that California has this kind of system.”

He added: “We want to deepen our democracy by giving people the right to vote on issues and not just candidates.”

Mr. Chen, in his speech, said that Taiwan faces a critical moment in its history and that it should make a decision on three key issues: its dispute over sovereignty with Beijing, whether to enact a national referendum law, and a new constitution.

He called the ability to hold referendums “a basic human right.”

Just a week ago, Mr. Chen said publicly that he would honor a pledge made shortly after his 2000 election not to hold a referendum asking Taiwanese voters whether they wished to be part of mainland China or an independent nation. He said yesterday, however, that the people of Taiwan reject the principle of “one China.”

For decades, the so-called “one China” principle was part of official policy in both China and Taiwan, where the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek held that it would return one day to rule all of China.

Taiwan lost its seat at the United Nations in 1971 to communist-ruled China. The island has been isolated internationally ever since, though it maintains strong economic ties with most of the world, including the United States.

The one-China principle also serves as the basis of U.S. policy toward both China and Taiwan, in which the United States has managed to avoid choosing between its vast interests in both places.

On Taiwan, however, few, including those in the Nationalist Party, remain attached to the concept of one-China, though most voters appear to favor maintaining the ambiguous status quo.

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