Hong Kong handover: Peking turns attention to Taiwan

Within hours of returning to Peking after taking possession of Hong Kong, China's top leaders set their sights on Taiwan, the most elusive prize in their quest to fully reunite their country.

Both Premier Li Peng and President Jiang Zemin, speaking in Peking yesterday, urged Taiwan to consider following in Hong Kong's footsteps back to the embrace of the mainland's Communist regime.

Speaking to several thousand guests at an afternoon reception in Peking's Great Hall of the People, Mr Li praised the "one country, two systems" formula under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty.

He said the formula, devised by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, is suitable for Hong Kong and Macau and, he added, "it can also work for Taiwan".

Before a crowd of more than 70,000 gathered in Peking's Workers' Stadium for yet another gala celebration, Mr Jiang likewise urged Taiwan to consider reunification. "We hope that the Taiwan authorities will, setting store by the overall interests of our nation, truly return to the one China position," Mr Jiang said

Taiwan, seen by Peking as a renegade province since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, has long rejected any suggestion of reuniting with anything but a democracy. Officials reiterated their unwillingness to contemplate such a move with China under its existing system.

"The Republic of China government [on Taiwan] will never accept such a formula," government spokesman David Lee said after Mr Jiang hailed the "one country, two systems" concept as a model for Taiwan.

Taiwan Vice President Lien Chan, meanwhile, said reunification would become possible only if the mainland adopts multiparty democracy, a formula Mr Lien called "one country, one good system".

Yesterday, Peking was unusually quiet as residents took advantage of a second consecutive day off to recover from a long night spent celebrating the handover. Few cars plied the city's streets, and morning papers were late in reaching the news-stands, but Pekingers remained excited about the dramatic events that continued unfolding in Hong Kong.

"I stayed up watching television until six this morning so I could see the army cross over into Hong Kong," said a woman who did not have the day off from her work as a street sweeper.

"I feel very proud today, and I think all Chinese people must feel proud too," she said.

In full agreement, the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily proclaimed that now "is the right time for the Chinese nation to wipe out the disgrace of the past more than 150 years and feel proud and elated!"

State-run television continued re-broadcasting highlights from its marathon overnight coverage of the midnight formalities and of the rainsoaked daybreak entry into Hong Kong of 4,000 People's Liberation Army troops.