China opens door to direct trade links with Taiwan

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Beijing opened the door to the first direct links with Taiwan in more than five decades when it backed down yesterday from its disapproval of Taiwan's proposed "three mini-links".

Beijing opened the door to the first direct links with Taiwan in more than five decades when it backed down yesterday from its disapproval of Taiwan's proposed "three mini-links".

The historic step will permit direct trade, transport and postal links between Taiwan's outlying islands Quemoy and Matsu and ports in the mainland's Fujian province, only a few kilometres away, beginning on New Year's Day. It represents the first signs of a thaw in bilateral relations, which have deteriorated since the election this year of the Taiwanese President, Chen Shui-bian.

China is "willing to help" make the links work, China's state media quoted a senior Fujian official as saying. But the mini-links fall short of Beijing's desire for full and unrestricted links between the two sides, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said.

"This is not comprehensive and cannot satisfy the needs for personal and trade exchanges between the two sides," Zhang Qiyue told a press conference in Beijing. But she did confirm that China would assist in putting the links in place.

This is a step back from Beijing's first response to the proposal made by Taiwan earlier this month, when China's official media dismissed it as merely "a political show" of "no practical significance".

Beijing has refused to engage Taiwan in formal talks since the island's former president Lee Teng-hui called for "special state-to-state relations" in July 1999. China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has threatened to attack if the Taiwanese leadership refuses indefinitely to commit to Beijing's "one-China policy", which would amount to Taipei renouncing any claims to statehood or membership of international bodies.

Despite the lack of formal agreements, local people have for years conducted small-scale trade between the mainland and Taiwan's outlying islands, mostly in fish and agricultural products. Taiwan unilaterally approved laws on 14 December that would legalise the trade routes already established and add to them tourist and post links. But these would be restricted to one-way links from Quemoy and Matsu, continuing the ban on mainland visits or any connections with Taiwan proper.

Taiwanese officials and observers on both sides have, however, expressed the hope that the mini-links will serve as a model for "three direct links" that would allow trade, transportation, mail and telecommunications to flow directly - bypassing the need for third-country stopovers.

Taiwan is still nervous about allowing direct links, fearing that China might abuse them to weaken the island's defence and stage an attack.

Although China is willing to go along with Taiwan's plan it has made it clear it will be on its own terms: Beijing has asked two groups of Taiwan visitors hoping to sail directly to the mainland to delay their visit by one day till 2 January.

Quemoy county commissioner Chen Shui-tsai said Chinese officials told him to delay plans to sail directly to Xiamen because 1 January is a holiday on the mainland.

**Outrage at official bungling and neglect brought protesters out on the streets in a rare demonstration to demand justice for the 309 victims of the Christmas fire in the central Chinese city of Luoyang.

Authorities have arrested 12 people they are charging with responsibility for the shopping centre blaze. But some relatives and friends of those who died are demanding compensation. Litigation in such cases is rare, although awards not exceeding a few thousand dollars are occasionally granted. Class action suits, however, are unheard of.

It is fairly common for officials to put pressure on victims and their families to keep quiet.