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Taiwan Leader Vows to Pursue Vote on Island's Name
Against that background, the State Department last month issued a strong statement laying out U.S. objections to the referendum. The objections also have been conveyed in private diplomatic exchanges, with U.S. officials arguing that the referendum would unnecessarily raise tensions with Beijing.
"The U.S. opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan's status unilaterally," the statement said. "This would include a referendum on whether to apply to the U.N. under the name Taiwan."
Asked what lay behind the pressure from Washington, Chen said: "I think it is the China factor, and because the introduction of a referendum would not be in China's interests."
Chen said he values Taiwan's long friendship with the United States and takes seriously its concerns. He pledged to continue consultations with U.S. officials to avoid any "misunderstanding" on the issue but gave no sign he was prepared to back down.
"Democracy is the most important asset for Taiwan," he said, "and a referendum is the best weapon, the most effective theater missile defense, against the totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party."
Chen's presidency has been marred by scandal -- his son-in-law is serving time for insider trading, his wife is on trial in an embezzlement case and he himself was investigated -- but he said he hopes fostering Taiwanese national identity will be his main legacy. The Nationalists were afraid to oppose the referendum precisely because these sentiments have become part of the mainstream in Taiwanese society, he said.
Chen said that when he took office in 2000, 36 percent of the population said they felt a Taiwanese national identity. The number rose to 68 percent in polls taken early this year, he added.
Chen, 56, started fighting for Taiwanese national identity and independence long before ascending to the presidency. At age 29, as a young lawyer, he was defending Huang Hsin-chieh, a Taiwanese who led an uprising in Kaohsiung against the 38-year martial law rule of the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.
The younger Chiang announced in October 1986, in an interview with Katharine Graham of The Washington Post, that he was going to lift martial law. He issued an order abolishing restrictions on democracy in July of the following year -- 20 years ago this month.
Only 10 days earlier, Chen had put Chiang's word to test by announcing he had formed the Democratic Progressive Party. That was the beginning of a long political career that culminated in Chen's election in 2000 as the first non-Nationalist to lead modern Taiwan.
Chen said Chiang's decision was not a benevolent act, but a recognition that the international atmosphere had changed. "It came about because even he could not fight against the tide of democracy," Chen said.