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China Criticizes Taiwan President for Supporting Independence Referendum - 2002-08-05

China has warned Taiwan it is risking serious trouble because of the Taiwanese president's support for a referendum on possible independence for the island. But China appears unlikely to respond militarily to the Taiwanese leader's remarks.

A spokesman for the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office, Li Weiyi, accused Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian of causing serious damage to relations between China and Taiwan. At a hastily convened news conference in Beijing Monday, Mr. Li called Mr. Chen a separatist whose advocacy of Taiwanese independence will damage Taiwan's economy and lead the island toward disaster.

Mr. Li said China will not permit anyone to split Taiwan from the mainland. The spokesman warns Taiwanese pro-independence forces not to misjudge the situation, and, as he put it, to immediately stop the horse at the edge of the precipice and end all separatist activities.

Over the weekend, President Chen issued his clearest comments on Taiwan independence since taking office more than two years ago. He said the island is a separate country from communist China, and its 23-million people should be free to hold a referendum to decide their own future.

The Chinese government spokesman said Beijing will not budge from its long-held principle that there is only one China, which includes Taiwan. Mr. Li said China's sovereignty and territorial integrity will not be divided.

He added that Mr. Chen's comments are another version of statements made by his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, in 1999. Mr. Lee - Taiwan's former president, said the island had a special state-to-state relationship with the mainland, implying that China and Taiwan are separate countries.

Mr. Lee's comment at the time provoked China to launch military exercises near Taiwan. Until now, President Chen has avoided similar language.

But mainland experts on Taiwan say that for the moment, China's reaction is likely to be limited to just words. Yan Xuetong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at Qinghua University said he believes Mr. Chen's speech hurts ties between Beijing and Taipei, but is unlikely to increase military tensions across the Taiwan Strait. However, Mr. Yan says that if Mr. Chen actually carries out a referendum on Taiwanese independence, there would be a heightened risk of military conflict.

China has threatened to attack Taiwan if it declares formal independence, or resists unification with the mainland. China and Taiwan have been governed separately since 1949, when the Nationalists fled the mainland after their defeat by Communist troops.