Taiwan seeks `confidence amid storm'

TERESA POOLE

Taipei

"Against China Threats", read a large banner as more than 1,000 people marched through a rainy Taipei yesterday afternoon. "This island is already independent. Try the Spratly Islands [disputed islands in the South China Sea]," was written on a sandwich board worn by one young woman.

The demonstration, organised by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was to vent public anger at mainland missile tests off Taiwan's north and south coasts. The message of those tests, which started on Friday, will be driven home by naval and airforce exercises due to start tomorrow using live ammunition in the Taiwan Strait. China is seeking to put pressure on the Taiwanese, and the island's moves towards greater international recognition.

At the weekend, Peking announced that the new exercises would continue until 20 March, just three days before Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections.

President Lee Teng-hui, the front-runner in the polls, yesterday pressed on along his campaign trail, telling his audience: "The 21 million people in Taiwan should find confidence despite a storm, and choose with dignity choose the first democratically elected president in the 5,000 years of Chinese history." Although almost certainly the winner, Mr Lee is campaigning hard, saying he wants a mandate of more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The mood yesterday in Taipei was one more of anger than of fear. At the DPP rally, one university professor said: "The people are here to protest against the Chinese coercion. Some people are scared, but not these people. My friends say they are going to fight back against the mainland Chinese government. Once the missiles started, they got angry." The DPP's presidential candidate, Peng Ming-min, maintains that Taiwan already has de facto independence and that the island's government should drop the "one China" policy.

The marchers at the DPP rally were mostly younger Taiwanese, who cheered loudly as speakers with megaphones denounced China's provocations. Those addressing the rally all spoke in the local Taiwan dialect, rather than standard Chinese. Both Mr Lee and Mr Peng are native Taiwanese, while the two other candidates are of mainland origin.

On Taipei's news-stands, the front pages of newspapers carry maps showing the site for tomorrow's military exercises, an area which reaches to a point about 40 miles from the Taiwanese-held Pescadores Islands.

But neither this nor the rain appeared to be troubling the large number of people who were happily shopping in the city centre department stores.

One elderly man, mainland born but a resident of Taiwan since 1949, said he would vote for Mr Lee. "The mainland will not invade. Chinese do not eat Chinese," he declared confidently. Peking's belligerence is aimed at reducing support for Mr Lee, who it alleges is working towards independence for Taiwan.

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