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Official Chinese Media Highlight Taiwanese Pro-Unification Rally - 2003-09-08

China is denouncing Saturday's massive pro-independence rally in Taiwan, while official Chinese media are giving different accounts of a much smaller pro-unification rally Sunday.

A Chinese state newspaper quotes an official with China's Taiwan Affairs Office who blasted Saturday's demonstration as a move by pro-independence activists to separate Taiwan from China. The official was quoted as saying the demonstration seriously damaged cross-straits relations.

China and Taiwan have had separate governments since the country's 1949 civil war. Taiwan officially calls itself the "Republic of China," but Beijing considers the island a renegade province.

Witnesses say tens of thousands rallied in the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, Saturday in support of changing Taiwan's official name from the "Republic of China" to "Taiwan." Taiwanese who favor independence say changing the island's name would assert a separation between Taiwan and mainland China.

For years, China has warned it will attack Taiwan if the island formally declares independence.

Saturday's rally in Taipei was followed by a counter-demonstration Sunday that, according to Western reporters, drew a much smaller crowd of about 3,000 people. Despite Western news reports, a state-run newspaper in Beijing, the China Daily, said tens of thousands had attended the pro-reunification rally and hardly mentions the larger demonstration on Saturday.

China usually reacts strongly to any event suggesting that Taiwan is moving toward declaring independence. But National Taiwan University political science professor Philip Yang said he finds Beijing's criticism of Saturday's pro-independence rally to be unusually mild. "The Beijing government only responded through its media, quoting what the Taiwan Affairs office said and with some exaggerations of the numbers participating in the demonstration in support of the unification of Taiwan and mainland China," he said.

Professor Yang says it appears Beijing is avoiding the strong statements it has made in the past, with leaders preferring to wait for the outcome of the March presidential elections in Taiwan. Whether Taiwan should declare its independence has been a central issue in the campaign.