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China Steps Up Criticism of Taiwan Leaders - 2003-11-26

China is continuing its verbal attack on Taiwan while at the same time urging the island's government to allow direct flights to the mainland. The Chinese government has recently stepped up its criticism of Taiwanese leaders, expressing alarm that Taiwan may be moving toward formal independence.

At a briefing in Beijing Wednesday, China's Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Zhang Mingqing made it clear that pushing for independence could lead to war. Quoting remarks made earlier by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Mr. Zhang says China will not remain idle if the Taiwan authorities continue to follow the path of independence.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province. The island has governed itself since 1949, when Nationalist leaders fled there following the Communist takeover of the mainland. China has threatened to take control of Taiwan by force if it declares independence.

The latest tensions come as Taiwan prepares for March elections in which incumbent President Chen Shui-bian has made the nationhood issue a central theme. Mr. Chen has angered China by calling for a new constitution by 2006 and by supporting a referendum on sovereignty - moves that Beijing interprets as steps toward formal independence.

China is to host the 2008 Olympics, and Chinese officials accuses Taiwanese leaders of taking advantage of the event to push for declaring a sovereign state.

"2006. That's less than two years before Beijing is going to hold the Olympic games," says Yen Chen-shen, an international relations professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University. "So, I think Taiwan is gambling that Beijing, because of this, will not be foolish enough to use military force."

China is also looking at options other than war to eventually establish control over Taiwan.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric, economic and people-to-people ties between Taiwan and the mainland have been growing. Political analysts say this gives China an opportunity to pursue peaceful unification.

On Wednesday, Chinese officials urged Taiwan to allow direct charter flights between the mainland and the island during next January's Lunar New Year holidays. The island does not permit direct shipping or air links to the mainland.

Last January, Taiwanese carriers flew hundreds of people to the mainland via Hong Kong and Macau. Mainland Chinese airlines, however, were not allowed to make the trips.