Taiwan rallies against Beijing law

 

TAIWAN: Children waving flags, dogs with bright green collars, huge inflatable figures, noisy floats, balloons - Saturday's huge rally in Taipei to protest against China's anti-secession law felt more like a street party than a display of anger and fear in the face of possible invasion.

The protesters - a million-strong, according to the organisers - chanted slogans and waved green flags bearing the words "Shame on China" and "Democracy" as they marched towards the presidential office from 10 locations around the capital city.

They gathered around two 15-metre-high "spiritual forts" - one a giant pearl representing Taiwan's desire for peace and democracy and the other a red sea urchin, which organisers said was a symbol of China's "violence-oriented autocracy".

"This way, I can say 'No' to China and give the family a day out at the same time," said one protester.

Indeed, the march had been billed as a "democratic carnival". But the festival atmosphere belied the fact that the protest took place in the shadow of hundreds of missiles pointed from China at the island Beijing calls a renegade province.

Beijing mocked the march as a "political carnival", saying that it did not enjoy popular support.

Tensions across the Strait of Taiwan have increased since March 14th, when China's annual parliament approved a law allowing the use of military force if Taiwan pushed for independence.

"I'm here because I think we need to offer our voices in support of Taiwan. China is very selfish, with big egos," said Lin Shou-ling (32), an office worker who was carrying a Fendi bag and wearing a hat with the logo "Peace, Democracy and Protect Taiwan".

"China is taking an unnecessary step with this law. We don't belong to them. I'm not worried about conflict. They are taking verbal action, not real action," said Ms Lin.

President Chen Shui-bian, protected by about 500 plainclothes police officers, appeared at an intersection along one of the protest routes and waved to the marchers. The tight security was unsurprising given that the president was shot and wounded during an election rally last year.

Police pushed a phalanx of photographers out of the way to allow the president to join the marchers. Some protesters tore up Chinese flags, but the police prevented the crowd from setting them alight.

The anti-secession law is viewed as a potent threat by Beijing to prevent President Chen declaring the island an independent state before his second and final term ends in 2008.

The passage of the legislation has increased strains between China and the west. The EU is currently arguing over whether to delay lifting an arms embargo it imposed on Beijing after the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, while Washington has described it as an unfortunate setback.

Huang Chih-chi (63), a retired seaman from Changhua, expressed his anger and defiance in the face of the new anti-secession law.

"I'm against the communists - they don't like Taiwan because we want independence. Taiwan and China are two different, separate countries. Compromise is impossible, because the communists in China are dictators who want to control the way people think. Taiwan has democracy. Also, the economic gap between Taiwan and China is too wide," Mr Huang said.

Chou Chien-ying, a nurse from Taipei, who was marching with her daughter, was more conciliatory, but still eager to make a stand. "I am here because I am Taiwanese. I am not afraid of the anti-secession law, but I believe that we can compromise," said Ms Chou.

In one of the more bizarre happenings during the protest, 706 children took part in a "naked kiddie butt" event, wiggling their bottoms, which were plastered with anti-missile stickers. China has 706 missiles aimed at Taiwan.

A woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty waved at the crowds.

The demonstrators came to the capital from all over the island on thousands of buses. Speakers mounted on floats blared out pro-independence anthems. "This is a budding flower we need to nurture" ran one tune, while another protester sang "Good Morning, Formosa", a reference to the old name of the island.

Members of the Falun Gong sect handed out leaflets giving details of the fate of their members on the mainland. Beijing considers Falun Gong a dangerous cult and arrests its members.

The president's party, the Democratic Progressive Party, hopes that the protest will draw international attention to the new law and put pressure on China to scrap it. The United States and Japan are Taiwan's most likely allies if there is a military conflict with China.

The defeated Kuomingtang nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949 and Beijing has always maintained that it is prepared to use force to bring the island of 23 million people back into the fold.

The nationalists are now the main opposition. They favour a more conciliatory approach towards China and their followers stayed away from the march.

The Taiwan Strait, separating the mainland from the island by a distance of 160km, is one of the world's most dangerous hotspots. The former civil war enemies have never met and tensions have risen and fallen over the years.