Taiwan repulses motherland's grasp

Taiwan's president, Lee Teng Hui, vigorously denied the suggestion of his Communist rival, President Jiang Zemin, that Taiwan will eventually follow Hong Kong into union with the Communist government of China.

"I would like to take this historic opportunity to solemnly proclaim that Taiwan is not Hong Kong," he said at a reception held for foreign journalists in Taipei yesterday. "The determination and achievements of the 21.5 million people of the Republic of China on Taiwan, in their pursuit of democracy and defence of freedom, cannot be ignored or negated. We shall never give up our democratic institutions."

Yesterday's event was clearly intended to counteract remarks made by President Jiang at the ceremony marking the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule on Tuesday. There, Mr Jiang promised to "unswervingly promote peaceful reunification of the motherland in accordance with the principle of `one country, two systems' ... eventually resolving the Taiwan question". Since then, Taiwan's leaders have insisted that until Peking embarks on democratic reforms, reunification is out of the question.

Taiwan has trade and investments worth tens of billions of dollars with Hong Kong; under British rule, the colony also served as a station for indirect trade between Taiwan and the Communist mainland. To the relief of many in Taipei, the new chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa, had a meeting yesterday with Koo Chen Fu, Taiwan's representative on relations with the mainland.

Technically, the meeting was "private"; Communist officials insisted that all contacts between Hong Kong and Taiwan must be approved by Peking.

Taiwan has been divided from the mainland since 1949 when the forces of the nationalist Kuomintang fled there after they were defeated in the civil war by the Communist People's Liberation Army. The Republic of China, as Taiwan's rulers insist on referring to it, has long claimed it is the legitimate Chinese government.

Peking regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and more and more countries have transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Peking. Britain took the step in 1950 but until this week, Taipei's official position was that Hong Kong should be restored to Taiwanese sovereignty.

Taiwan has offered to engage in talks with Peking on an equal footing, but so far has been snubbed. "A model on the lines of Hong Kong and Macau is by no means acceptable," said Lien Chan, Taiwan's vice president and prime minister yesterday. "Unification must be accomplished on the basis if freedom, democracy and equal distribution of wealth."