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Taiwan President Signs Law Legalizing Referendums - 2003-12-31

Taiwan's president has signed a law legalizing referendums - clearing the way for a March vote on whether to demand that China stop pointing missiles at the island. China's communist leaders have blasted the move.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian signed the referendum measure into law Wednesday, calling it a "historic day" - even though the bill fell short of what his ruling independence-minded party wanted. The bill was passed by the legislature in November, but opposition lawmakers limited the president's control over the type of referendums held.

The new law does allow Mr. Chen to hold a so-called defensive plebiscite - if Taiwan's security is threatened. And the president has done just that - scheduling a referendum in March on whether to demand that China stop pointing hundreds of missiles at the island.

China has publicly blasted the referendum law as a ruse for Taiwan to seek formal independence from the communist mainland. China considers Taiwan a part of its territory, although the island has been self-governed since the 1949 Communist takeover of the mainland.

President Chen is seeking a second term in the March 20 national elections. Independence has become a theme of his campaign, making leaders in Beijing increasingly nervous.

China on Wednesday blasted the Taiwanese leader for referring to his reelection campaign as a "holy war" against the mainland Communist authorities. Taiwanese newspapers said Mr. Chen made the remarks at a campaign rally Saturday.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing Wednesday, Zhang Mingqing, spokesman for the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office, accused Taiwan's leader of unscrupulously fanning anti-mainland sentiments. "Chen Shui-bian uses information regardless of whether it is true as long as it benefits him in the elections."

China has threatened to use force if Taiwan moves toward independence or is slow to seek unification with the mainland. Taiwanese officials say Beijing is using the elections as an excuse to accuse Taipei of moving toward independence, much as it has in the run-up to the island's past elections.

Alexander Huang is Vice Chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. He said it is natural that candidates in an election would try to generate public debate on issues of national interest. "We believe that these discussions are not necessarily leading to cross-straits tensions," he said.

Analysts say they expect the cross-straits rhetoric to escalate as the March elections draw closer.