Taiwan Gets Warning From China
On the one hand, Chinese Premier Li Peng did not issue a timetable for the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan as an influential Hong Kong newspaper had predicted, sending Taiwanese markets into a panic.
On the other hand, the hard-line Chinese leader did not rule out the use of force and did warn Taiwanese leaders that employing the upcoming presidential election on the island as a justification for political independence would be viewed dimly in Beijing.
“Whatever changes might occur in the way in which the leadership is chosen,” Li said in a high-profile speech Tuesday at the Great Hall of the People, “they cannot change the fact that Taiwan is part of China and its leaders are only leaders of a region in China.”
In a reference to Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, scheduled for March, Li warned: “It will lead nowhere if some people attempt to use the change of Taiwanese leaders as an excuse to put their separatist activities in a legal guise.”
Delivered amid growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait fueled by reports that the Chinese military has prepared a battle plan to recapture the prosperous island, Li’s speech was considered an important gauge of China’s position. The speech took on added significance when the Hong Kong Economic Times, a Chinese-language newspaper, reported this week that the Chinese premier would outline a specific timetable for reunification.
Li did not mention any specific timetable. And in Taiwan, officials reported with relief that Li’s speech marked no significant change in the Chinese position.
“Li Peng’s talk today contained no new elements,” said Taiwanese Deputy Prime Minister Hsu Li-teh, as quoted by the state-run Central News Agency. “This kind of talk has been repeated many times.”
In substance, Li’s speech varied little from a policy address on Taiwan delivered a year ago by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Li restated China’s commitment to a “peaceful reunification of the motherland” through negotiations. But, like Jiang, he warned, “In the final analysis, we cannot give up the use of force.”
The official New China News Agency in Beijing pointedly noted that the speech was attended by military leader Liu Huaqing, first vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission.
Meanwhile, in editorials tied to Li’s speech, two important Chinese newspapers blasted Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, the overwhelming favorite to win the March 23 presidential poll on the island, as a secret advocate of Taiwanese independence.
“Although Lee Teng-hui is trying to cloak his separatist activities with ‘democracy,’ ” said the editorial in the People’s Daily, official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, “his real aim is to turn Taiwan into a political entity independent of China.”
Politically separated from the mainland during nearly 100 years of Japanese colonial and Chinese Nationalist rule, Taiwan is still considered a province by the Communist mainland government.
The Liberation Army Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese military, said: “Lee Teng-hui’s perverse acts have cast a shadow over the great cause of peaceful reunification, arousing the indignation of the entire Chinese people and all PLA [People’s Liberation Army] officers and men.”
Beijing’s hostility toward Lee, 72, reached a crescendo in June when he made a high-profile “private” visit to the United States to attend a reunion at Cornell University in Upstate New York, where he went to graduate school.
After that trip, China staged a series of military exercises off the Taiwan Strait. More military actions, including missile test-firings, took place on the eve of Taiwanese legislative elections in December.
According to a report last week in the New York Times, which quoted U.S. sources, China has since prepared a detailed battle plan to recapture the island if Lee and his government strike a course toward independence following the presidential election.
Lee’s U.S. visit, which came after assurances from the Clinton administration that it would not take place, angered conservative factions of the Chinese military. This forced Jiang, the front-runner to replace 91-year-old Deng Xiaoping as China’s paramount leader, to take a tough position in order to maintain his important military support in the succession battle.
Internationally, China is intent on showing that foreign support for Taiwanese independence will not be tolerated.