Taiwanese Lawmakers Approve Independence Referendum
By Tim Culpan and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 27, 2003; 4:19 PM
TAIPEI, Taiwan, Nov. 27 -- Taiwan's legislature stepped back from a confrontation with China on Thursday, approving a carefully worded referendum bill that would make it difficult if not impossible to call a vote on the island's independence.
The legislature's action appeared likely to ease tensions in the Taiwan Straits and calm the Chinese government after more than a week of escalating verbal attacks describing Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's push for referendum legislation as a step toward formal independence.
Beijing considers Taiwan as part of China and says it will go to war if the self-governing island of 23 million declares independence. On Wednesday, it also threatened a "strong reaction" if Taiwan passed a law that would let its citizens to vote on issues of national sovereignty and "create the legal basis for Taiwan independence."
The weaker bill adopted by Taiwanese lawmakers does not appear to cross that line. The Chinese government did not immediately comment, but an official Internet site quoted a Taiwan expert with ties to the government saying the legislature's action would "temporarily ease the recent tense atmosphere in the Straits."
Both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan's two main opposition parties had condemned China's threats and vowed to enact a referendum bill. But when the issue came to the floor Thursday, opposition lawmakers balked at Chen's broad proposal and succeeded in adding language making it more difficult to call a referendum and limiting the kind of questions that could be put to a vote.
The most important provision inserted by the opposition prohibits any referendum on changing Taiwan's official name -- the Republic of China -- its national flag, or the definition of its territory. Beijing had warned that a referendum law that did not specifically block such changes would trigger a strong response.
Chen's supporters expressed disappointment in the final legislation and accused the opposition Nationalist and People First parties of caving in to pressure from Beijing.
"They have passed what we call a birdcage version, which limits referendums rather than authorizes the public to have their say," said Joseph Wu, deputy secretary general to the president.
A Nationalist Party spokesman, Justin Chao, denied the opposition had bowed to threats from China. Instead, he said, it had struck a balance between the public's right to a hold a referendum and the risk of damaging cross-strait relations.
"This isn't because of China," he said. "This is because we think Taiwan needs to maintain stability... We hope the people can understand that what we did was very hard."
Because the opposition controls a slim majority in the legislature, it succeeded in rewriting key elements of Chen's referendum proposal during a long day of debate and political maneuvering.
While Chen's bill would have allowed the president or his cabinet to call a referendum, the law that passed stipulates that proposals must come from the public or the legislature. In addition, proponents of a referendum must gather signatures from five percent of Taiwan's electorate and win the approval of a legislative committee to put an issue on the ballot.
Chen's supporters managed to save one provision that allows the president to call a "defensive," or emergency referendum on national security issues -- perhaps including independence -- if the island's sovereignty is threatened by outside forces.
The opposition's decision to accommodate Beijing will complicate the political situation in Taiwan, where Chen is running for reelection in March and is behind in most polls. He had been gaining on his rivals by pushing the referendum proposal and portraying his opponents as too easily cowed by Beijing.
Earlier this month, the opposition parties broke with longstanding policy and decided to support a referendum law in an effort to take the issue away from Chen. But by passing a weaker version, they may have provided Chen is more ammunition.
Pan reported from Beijing.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company