TAIPEI • Tens of thousands of Taiwan independence campaigners took to the streets for a major rally that was a rebuke to Beijing and a challenge to the island's already embattled government.
The protest in central Taipei yesterday came as China increasingly pushes its claim to the self-ruling democratic island and President Tsai Ing-wen struggles to appease Beijing and independence factions.
It was the first large-scale protest calling for an outright independence vote since Taiwan first became a democracy more than 20 years ago. Organisers claimed a turnout of more than 100,000.
Demonstrators gathered outside the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters chanting "Want referendum!" and "Oppose annexation!"
China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified, despite the two sides being ruled separately since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949.
Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state, with its own currency, and political and judicial systems, but has never declared formal independence from the mainland. Beijing has warned that it would respond with force if Taiwan tried an official split.
Organised by new group Formosa Alliance, which is backed by two pro-independence former Taiwan presidents, Mr Lee Teng-hui and Mr Chen Shui-bian, the rally called for a public vote on whether the island should formally declare independence from China. "We want to tell China to stop bullying Taiwan," Alliance leader Kuo Pei-horng, 63, told the crowd. "Taiwanese people want to be their own master."
Families took their children to the event, but the majority of protesters were older residents, with some pro-independence church groups also joining the rally."We should take concrete action, hold a referendum and declare independence," said Hung Chen-jen, 16. "I don't want Taiwan to be eaten up by China."
Even though the DPP is traditionally independence-leaning, President Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo with China.
But that has not prevented relations from deteriorating since she took office in 2016 as she refuses to adhere to Beijing's line that Taiwan is part of "one China".
Beijing has made a multi-pronged attack to erase Taiwan from the international stage, including blocking it from global forums and poaching its dwindling number of official diplomatic allies. China has also successfully pressured global companies to list Taiwan as part of China on their corporate websites.
At the same time, Ms Tsai's measured approach has alienated some pro-independence DPP supporters.
A vote on independence would require an amendment to current laws, which bar referendums on changing the Constitution or sovereign territory. Formosa Alliance is urging the DPP government, which has a majority in Parliament, to change the laws to allow such a vote.
Analysts agree that Ms Tsai would be unlikely to allow such an amendment, which would be a red flag to Beijing. The Chinese authorities have already said that Formosa Alliance should not go down what they called a "dangerous path".
The DPP publicly prohibited its officials and candidates from attending yesterday's rally, instead holding its own protest against China's "annexation" of Taiwan in the southern city of Kaohsiung.
But the rally did not call for an independence vote and in a statement ahead of the protest, the DPP emphasised it did not want to "change the status quo of Taiwan's independent sovereignty".