TAIPEI, Taiwan, March 26 -- Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese marched through Taipei on Saturday to voice their opposition to an anti-secession law recently passed by China that authorizes the use of force against the island if it moves toward formal independence.
Chanting support for peace and democracy, the demonstrators carried banners and signs through the streets, proclaiming the law, which China approved March 14, an act of aggression against Taiwan's 23 million inhabitants.
"We're here because we need to support Taiwan and send a message to China that they can't tell us what to do," said Tony Liu, 51, a businessman who joined the protest with his wife.
The protest, organized by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, condemned China's pledge to use "non-peaceful means" as a last resort should Taiwan move toward formal independence. President Chen Shui-bian, an ardent nationalist and independence advocate, marched with other officials in his party but did not address the crowd. Leaders of the opposition Nationalist Party stayed away.
Chen and his party had called for a million people to turn out. Police declined to estimate how many took part. Local news media said more than 500,000 and perhaps up to a million people were on the streets at one point or another during the protest, which lasted through the afternoon.
The march ended outside the presidential palace with a concert that took on the jovial atmosphere of a street festival. After the concert, Chen took to the stage and joined the crowd in chants of "protect democracy, love peace, defend Taiwan," then in singing folk songs alongside other party figures and rally organizers.
The Chinese government asserts that Taiwan is part of its territory, but Taiwan's elected leaders insist it is an independent, sovereign country. The United States formally recognizes only the Chinese government, but it sells arms to Taiwan and has pledged to help defend it.
Chinese authorities began drafting the anti-secession law last fall, when Chen's government was planning to take several steps regarded by China as a way to inch the island toward independence. These included changing the names of state-owned enterprises to emphasize "Taiwan" instead of "Republic of China" and altering the constitution.
But by the time China's National People's Congress passed the law, Chen's administration had already vowed to limit any constitutional changes, and had dramatically cut back its anti-China rhetoric. The atmosphere across the Taiwan Strait improved further when China and Taiwan exchanged direct charter flights during the Lunar New Year holidays this year.
The warming trend has returned to a wintry chill, however, since the law was passed. Joseph Wu, chairman of Taiwan's cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, told reporters that any negotiations with China have been put on hold. "What we're waiting for and hope for is what they say and do to rectify the damage caused by the anti-secession law," he said.
Correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing contributed to this report.