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China Threatens Voters in Taiwan
Premier Issues Warning Near Election

By Clay Chandler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 16, 2000; Page A01

BEIJING, March 15—Three days before a closely contested presidential election in Taiwan, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji bluntly warned the island's voters today against choosing a pro-independence leader, saying the future rides on their selection.

"Let me advise all these people in Taiwan," Zhu said. "Do not just act on impulse at this juncture, which will decide the future course that China and Taiwan will follow. Otherwise I'm afraid you won't get another opportunity to regret."

Zhu's ultimatum, delivered before foreign reporters at the close of the annual meeting of the Chinese legislature, the National People's Congress, was the latest--and loudest--salvo in an increasingly bellicose rhetorical assault aimed at Taiwan. It seemed designed in particular to dissuade Taiwanese from voting for Chen Shui-bian, a candidate in the dead-heat race who has repeatedly expressed a conviction that Taiwan is an independent country and China should treat it that way.

Although the prime minister did not specifically threaten an attack, his warning came against a background of repeated declarations here that China would resort to military action if Taiwan was invaded by a foreign power, declared independence or put off talks "indefinitely" on reunification with the mainland.

The war of words escalated last year when the outgoing Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, infuriated Beijing by saying the time had come for Taiwan and China to deal with each other as separate and equal states. Although most Taiwanese regard their land as a country, China has considered it a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalists took refuge there when Mao Zedong and his Communist forces seized power in 1949.

Zhu's warning today constituted an overt attempt to influence the outcome of Taiwan's election on Saturday, and it also defied the Clinton administration's wishes that Beijing avoid antagonizing Congress ahead of a much-publicized vote on U.S.-Chinese trade relations.

The ultimatum was issued by a man long regarded outside China as an even-tempered pragmatist. But Zhu's manner today contrasted starkly with his image. He drove home his comments on Taiwan in emphatic tones and in several instances shouted into the microphones arrayed before him.

"No matter who comes into power in Taiwan, Taiwan will never be allowed to be independent," he vowed. "This is our bottom line and the will of 1.25 billion Chinese people."

Zhu also rebuked politicians in Washington for what he characterized as meddling in China's internal affairs. He warned outsiders seeking solace in the perception that China lacks sufficient military might to take Taiwan not to underestimate the depths of Beijing's resolve.

"People making such calculations don't know about Chinese history," he declared. "The Chinese people are ready to shed blood and sacrifice their lives to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the motherland."

Zhu's comments could be seen as an effort to shore up his position within the Chinese leadership. Since his trip to the United States last April, when he negotiated initial terms for China's accession to the World Trade Organization that many decried as too conciliatory, Zhu has drawn criticism on Web sites and in Internet chat rooms here as a "traitor" and "lover of America."

In today's remarks, Zhu seemed to go out of his way to counter such perceptions. Indeed, some of his statements about U.S. leaders dripped with sarcasm. For example, Zhu took a direct swipe at President Clinton, quoting from a recent speech at Johns Hopkins University in which the president called for "a shift from threat to dialogue across the Taiwan Strait."

Switching to English, Zhu recommended a two-word revision to Clinton's statement. What the American president should have said, Zhu admonished, was that there must be "a shift from threat to dialogue across the Pacific Ocean."

A senior Clinton administration official said in Washington that Clinton had "sought to be constructive" in his comments at the Hopkins graduate school. The official warned that failing to resolve the Taiwan issue "would be very harmful to the interests of everyone concerned."

"We continue to uphold our 'one China' policy, urge the two sides to engage in dialogue, and insist that there be a peaceful resolution to cross-strait differences," said State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. "We have repeatedly encouraged both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan to pursue steps to reduce tensions across the strait."

Beijing's rhetoric on reunification took a turn on Feb. 21 with the release of a white paper from the Taiwan Affairs Office. The document stated explicitly that China would use military force to take control of Taiwan if the island's political leaders attempt to put off the question of reunification with the mainland "indefinitely."

Previously, China had said it would use military force only if Taiwan were invaded by a foreign power or declared independence.

In the days since the white paper, top Chinese leaders have reiterated the invasion threat. Their statements have been interpreted as an effort to frighten Taiwan's voters away from Chen, whose Democratic Progressive Party has urged that Taiwan declare independence.

Zhu's comments dominated television news broadcasts this evening in Taiwan. In Taipei, the top official on China policy denounced Zhu's declaration.

"Mr. Zhu, among other People's Republic of China officials, has no right to say anything about our election," Su Chi, chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, told Reuters.

Chen, meanwhile, told a campaign rally that Taiwanese voters will not be intimidated by what he called the "terror card." "Taiwan is a sovereign, independent country," he added, according to the Associated Press. "It's not a part of the People's Republic of China."

The white paper has had no discernible effect on voter support for any of Taiwan's three presidential contenders, and many pollsters say the race remains too close to call. In the past two weeks, however, Chen has picked up key endorsements of a number of top scholars, business leaders and former officials from the ruling Kuomintang Party.

Zhu, describing Taiwan's ballot as a "local election" that should therefore be decided by local voters, did not endorse a specific candidate. Most analysts, though, regard independent James Soong, a former Lee protege who espouses a more conciliatory approach to relations with the mainland, as Beijing's first choice. The third principal candidate is Lien Chan, the Kuomintang's chosen standard bearer.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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