A massive crowd turns out to condemn China's new anti-secession law aimed at the island. Beijing may have misjudged the fallout.
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Several hundred thousand Taiwanese took to the streets Saturday to protest China's passage of a controversial anti-secession law authorizing the mainland to use force if Taipei declares independence.
A handful of demonstrators burned Chinese flags and defaced cardboard images of China, but no major clashes were reported during the mass gathering in which many pushed baby carriages, chanted slogans and protest songs and walked dogs wreathed in peace banners.
"I'm here because I want the world to know that Taiwan's future should be determined by the Taiwanese people," said Maria Yang, 40, a teacher from Taipei walking with a huge crowd toward the president's office. "I hope China receives a very clear message today that they have no authority over us, no right to pass such a law."
The rally, which organizers said drew 1 million people but police estimated attracted fewer than half that number, was as much about gaining foreign support as it was about rallying Taiwanese.
American protest songs including "Blowin' in the Wind" and "We Shall Overcome" were chosen to resonate with overseas viewers, organizers said. Several in the crowd carried American flags, "Peace" and "Protect Taiwan" signs in English and cardboard depictions of President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, leaders of the two nations most likely to defend Taiwan if China were to attack.
"We're trying to have the voice of Taiwan heard by China and the international community," said Hsiao Bi-kim, a protest organizer and lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. "The vast majority of people find the Chinese law unacceptable."
Washington has criticized the statute, passed without opposition two weeks ago by Beijing's largely ceremonial legislature, as likely to worsen already tense cross-strait relations. Taiwan broke with China in 1949 during the civil war that brought the Communists to power, but Beijing still claims the island as part of its territory.
Chinese analysts condemned Saturday's demonstration, saying it had been organized by troublemakers and misrepresented genuine Taiwanese public opinion.
"A few pro-independence forces are trying to fan the emotions of Taiwanese who don't understand the law, bringing them onto the streets," said Xu Bodong, a professor at Beijing Union University. "They lure them with money and gifts like free lunches."
Taiwanese lawmakers and government officials said the next move was up to Beijing. It's unlikely that China will revoke the law, but it could ease its hard-line rhetoric or exacerbate tensions by strengthening its military posture and changing emergency statutes to conform to the new anti-secession law.
The demonstration occurred at a very sensitive time, said Wu Yu-shan, a regional expert with Academia Sinica, a Taiwanese think tank.
"If Beijing interprets the march as a substantial step toward independence, it could put even greater pressure on Taiwan and we could see an escalation" of problems, he said. "It really depends on everyone knowing the limits."
China's decision to pass the law has undermined its security interests, at least in the short term, according to overseas analysts.
"I think they shot themselves in the foot," said Jean-Philippe Beja, a China expert at France's Center for International Studies and Research. "The lesson they'll draw from this is to be a lot more careful in the future."
In China's immediate neighborhood, the law has burdened cross-strait relations just when the two sides seemed to be edging closer with the advent of direct holiday charter flights, the naming of a moderate Chinese premier and less inflammatory rhetoric on both sides.
Further afield, analysts said, China appears to have underestimated the impact that the new law would have in Europe, which is debating the lifting of a 15-year embargo on weapons sales to China enacted after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
By codifying its willingness to use military force against Taiwan, Beijing handed a potent argument to Europeans who oppose lifting the ban, allowing them to paint China as an aggressor that can't be trusted.
China's new law is only one of several factors in the debate over the ban. Washington has lobbied European nations hard against lifting sanctions, arguing that it would pit European and American weapons against each other in a cross-strait conflict.
Analysts said, however, that the law could very well tip the balance.
"The anti-secession law does complicate the weapons ban debate to a certain extent," said Song Xinning, an expert on Sino-European relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "I'm pessimistic the ban will be lifted now, a side effect of the law's passage."
The new law could also strengthen Japan's growing concern over China's expanding economic and military power in Asia, prompting Tokyo to raise its own military profile and move closer to the U.S. and Taiwan to counter Beijing's ambitions.
"China's more pronounced stance is likely to increase tensions with the U.S. over security issues, and affect links with Taiwan and Japan," said Pauline Eadie, a political analyst with the University of Nottingham in Britain.
"There's a possibility they're playing brinkmanship as a way to have the U.S. clarify its position in the region."
Last week's visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could have been a high point for the relatively new regime of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Instead, there were signs of tension as she delivered a message that the Chinese law raised cross-strait anxieties and was not welcomed.
It has also handed Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian, an expert political campaigner, the opportunity to rally support behind his presidency.
"There's real grass-roots unhappiness with the law in Taiwan," said Chiu Tai-san, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, charged with overseeing relations with China. "It's made Taiwanese realize the fundamental gap in democracy and values between the two systems."
Decision-making in Beijing is largely opaque, but analysts offer several possible reasons for China's apparent miscalculation. The leadership appears to have overrated European support for lifting the arms ban.
It also may have gotten caught in its own clunky system, some say.
The decision to pass the law was made last year when it looked as though Taiwan's pro-independence movement was unstoppable. Having announced it would pass the law, the Chinese leadership couldn't easily reverse course even as cross-strait relations warmed.
The statute contains little that China hasn't said repeatedly. But Chinese officials failed to realize that putting it into law would fuel suspicion and anger.
But keeping Taiwan from declaring independence is so important to the Chinese leadership, frustrated by its eroding influence over the island, that it's willing to weather short-term setbacks if it ultimately keeps Taipei in check, analysts say.
President Chen opted not to speak at the demonstration Saturday, but marched and sang a song, "Taiwan Is Our Baby." Scores of children were plastered with stickers decrying China's arsenal, meant to contrast Taiwanese innocence with what demonstrators see as Chinese belligerence.
Protesters converged on the president's office from 10 directions, signifying the 10 articles in the anti-secession law.
"China's law is unwelcome and unnecessary," said Lin Shou-ling, a 32-year-old office worker from Taipei who was holding a camera and a designer handbag. "We don't belong to them, so why are they doing this?"
By Mark Magnier March 27, 2005
Special correspondent Tsai Ting-I in Taipei and Yin Lijin in the Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times