China eases view of Taiwan self-rule

Beijing still `concerned' about referendum bill but stops short of threats


TAIPEI, Taiwan - Beijing shifted its response to new Taiwanese legislation on national referendums yesterday, expressing concern about the law and repeating warnings to this island against seeking formal independence, but stopping short of any threats.

The official New China News Agency had initially posted a commentary on its Internet site noting that the referendum legislation had removed "the imminent danger of Taiwanese independence."

The initial commentary was joined on the site yesterday by a brief statement quoting an unidentified spokesman for the Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Office. "We are deeply concerned about relevant things concerning `referendum legislation' in Taiwan and are paying close attention to the development of the issue," the spokesman was quoted as saying.

The statement closed with a warning that "any attempt to separate Taiwan from China will not be tolerated absolutely." But in contrast with three warnings this week of the possible use of force against the island if a broad referendum law passed, the statement made no explicit threats.

Beijing has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province ever since the Nationalists lost China's civil war to the Communists in 1949 and retreated here.

Beijing's return to vague statements suggested that tensions across the Taiwan Strait were easing, experts here said yesterday. By contrast, a Chinese statement this week had referred to Taiwan as a shen sheng, or sacred, part of China, a term seldom used in recent years and viewed here as a signal of great anger and intransigence in Beijing.

On Thursday, President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party backed away from previous demands by the party's pro-independence wing for broad legislation authorizing the use of referendums to pursue changes in the constitution and sovereignty.

The party ended up offering a more narrowly written version, which in turn was rejected on the floor of the legislature in favor of an even narrower version supported by the Nationalist Party and People First Party, which favor eventual political reunification with the mainland.

Politicians said in interviews that a consensus seemed to be emerging among political parties that the presidential campaign getting started here should be fought more on economic issues than on sovereignty issues that might inflame relations with China. Even Chen's government and his party are taking a more moderate tone, partly after American officials made several strong statements to Taiwanese reporters in Washington in the last week that the Bush administration did not want a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

A senior Taiwanese government official described yesterday an acute wariness of angering the United States by allowing any crisis to develop with China at a time when the Bush administration is preoccupied with Iraq and North Korea.

"People here in the political parties know this is not a time to offend our friends, especially when our friends need a more peaceful time" in the Taiwan Strait, said the official, who insisted on anonymity. "We are aware of the reality; we are pretty realistic."

The referendum law passed by the legislature might be unconstitutional in allowing the legislature to call referendums but making it extremely difficult for the president to do so, the official said in an interview. For this reason, Chen may veto the law or ask the legislature to amend it or ask Taiwan's supreme court, the Council of Grand Justice, to issue an interpretation of the law's technical provisions, the official said.

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