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Thursday, April 17, 2003

Taiwan referendum bill may rile Beijing

HONG KONG -- The Taiwan legislature is discussing the politically charged proposal of adopting a referendum law to allow important policy issues, such as whether to build a nuclear power plant, to be decided by the island's 23 million people.

On Saturday, President Chen Shui-bian expressed his support for the enactment of such a law in his capacity as chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. The DPP caucus is expected to mobilize support to put the sensitive issue on the legislative agenda.

Proponents of the law argue that as a democracy, Taiwan should give its citizens the ultimate right to make decisions on major issues.

China, however, sees this as another move by Chen's government to eventually declare the island an independent country, since Chen had in the past strongly supported the holding of a referendum to determine whether Taiwan should be reunited with mainland China or to be permanently separated.

On March 26, Beijing issued a strong warning to Taiwan. "The conspiracy to separate Taiwan from China in the way of a referendum, which is illegal and invalid, will go nowhere," said Zhang Mingqing, spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, China's Cabinet.

The proposed referendum law is strongly supported by the DPP's ally, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, which is backed by former President Lee Teng-hui, who favors an independent republic of Taiwan, separate from China.

A referendum law that would allow a declaration of Taiwan independence has been opposed by the two main opposition parties, the Kuomintang and the People's First Party, both of which believe that passage of such legislation would provoke mainland China into taking action against Taiwan.

To alleviate such feelings, some lawmakers have proposed limiting the scope of the referendum law so that it cannot be applied to such issues as the nation's status, symbols and constitution.

While the ruling party is the largest in the legislature, it does not command a majority and so it won't be easy for a referendum law to be adopted, given the strong opposition voiced by China and by the opposition parties.

Chinese officials no doubt remember the promises made by Chen in his inaugural speech, when he pledged what became known as the "four no's."

"I will not declare independence," Chen asserted on May 20, 2000, when he was sworn in as the first non-KMT president in Taiwan's history. "I will not change the national title. I will not push for the inclusion of the so-called state-to-state description in the constitution, and I will not promote a referendum to change the status quo in regard to the question of independence or unification."

These declarations seemed definitive and yet, last August, Chen showed what were probably his true colors in a speech given via video link to the pro-independence World Federation of Taiwanese Associations meeting in Tokyo.

At the time, the president sounded a strongly pro-independence note, declaring that Taiwan must walk down its own road and saying, "Only the great 23 million people of Taiwan have the right to decide on Taiwan's future, destiny, and status quo."

Then he went on: "How do we make a decision when necessary? Referendum -- it is the ideal and goal we have been pursuing over a long period of time and the common idea of everyone. Referendum is a basic human right that should not be deprived or restricted. I sincerely call on and encourage all of you to seriously ponder the importance and urgency of a referendum legislation."

In that same speech, Chen declared Taiwan and China to be separate countries on opposite sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Given that Chen has made clear his desire for Taiwan to declare independence and to pass a referendum law first to pave the way for the holding of a referendum on independence, it is little wonder that China is suspicious of his motives, now that he is openly backing the passage of a law that will allow the holding of referendums.

Supporters of the proposal point out that Article 17 of the constitution at present says that the people shall have the right of election, recall, initiative and referendum. Another article says that the exercise of the rights of initiative and referendum shall be prescribed by law. However, no law has ever been passed to provide for this.

And clearly, if Beijing has its will, no such law will ever be passed.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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