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Taiwanese leader’s talks with Chinese envoy stir protests

Magnier is a Times staff writer and Sui a special correspondent.

The highest-ranking mainland Chinese official to visit Taiwan got an up-close lesson in democracy Thursday as thousands of protesters blared air horns, scuffled with police and threw stones on a day he held a historic meeting with the island’s president.

In a bid to keep protesters off-balance, the meeting between Chinese envoy Chen Yunlin and President Ma Ying-jeou was held five hours earlier than announced. But a few demonstrators still managed to get to the site and were met by hundreds of riot police officers deployed near barricades layered with barbed wire.

“Taiwan is a democracy,” said Thomas M. F. Yeh, vice chairman of Polaris Securities and a former Taiwanese official. “That’s our system.”

Thursday was the fourth day of Chen’s trip, each of which has been marked by a variety of protests that underscore the continued division in Taiwanese society over how far to engage with China and under what terms. Since his election in March, Ma has made improving relations with the mainland a cornerstone policy, part of a bid to jump-start the island’s economy and end decades of enmity across the Taiwan Strait.

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On Tuesday, Chen signed a deal that will allow direct passenger and cargo flights and ocean shipping service across the 110-mile strait. Previously the services have been forced to pass through third-party airspace or ocean territory, adding time and expense.

The two sides have been divided since 1949, when Nationalists fled to the island, leaving the Communists in control of mainland China. Beijing has long vowed to bring the self-governing island under its control, by force if necessary.

A great deal of public speculation leading up to the meeting centered on whether Chen would refer to Ma as “president,” given that China deems the island a renegade province.

A compromise was struck for the brief meeting. A Taiwanese master of ceremonies announced that the “president had arrived” as Ma entered the room. Ma then greeted Chen as the “president” of the Chinese negotiating body, which he is. At that point, Chen avoided using any title with Ma, employing an honorific form of “you” as he handed over a gift of a painting of a horse.

“The development fits the expectations of the people of both sides and will contribute to cross-strait stability and prosperity,” Ma said as network cameras rolled. “But we cannot deny that differences and challenges still exist, such as Taiwan’s security and Taiwan’s position in the international community.”

The nomenclature sleight of hand failed to impress some critics.

“As president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou should insist on Taiwan’s sovereignty,” said Jeremy Li, a university professor in Taipei who was out protesting in front of the hotel where the officials had dinner Wednesday. “You can’t say, ‘You don’t need to call me president; we don’t need to hang up flags.’ He’s humiliating himself.”

Ma sought to respond to charges by the opposition, including leaders of the Democratic Progressive Party, that he was selling out Taiwan.

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“Taiwan’s status has not been undermined nor its sovereignty weakened” by forging closer ties with China, Ma told reporters at a news conference earlier Thursday. “I did not concede an inch of Taiwan’s sovereignty, so as president I have not made any mistakes.”

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mark.magnier@latimes.com


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