Newspapers yesterday said President Chen Shui-bian's (
Chen told a gathering of pro-independence activists in Tokyo during a video conference on Saturday that he supported legislation for a referendum law that would be necessary should the people of Taiwan need to decide whether to declare independence from China, a move certain to anger Beijing.
Chen also said Taiwan and China were each "one country on each side" of the Taiwan Strait, echoing the views of former president Lee Teng-hui (
The pro-unification China Post criticized Chen's remarks as "unfortunate."
"While Beijing is certain to offer an angry knee-jerk reaction, we believe that Chen will also be inundated with negative fallout from our friends in Washington," the English-language newspaper said in an editorial.
The mass circulation United Daily News said Chen's remarks marked "the end of the `new middle of the road path'" -- a political slogan he coined for a compromised China policy under pressure from various factions of his party.
It said Chen had formally ushered out the moderate policy.
"From today on, all the 23 million people here have to count down to the referendum," it said.
When Chen took office in May 2000, he promised not to declare statehood or push for an independence referendum in what was seen then as a gesture to Beijing in what has been billed the "new middle of the road path."
But the Taiwan Daily, which has close ties to the government, defended Chen's "one country on each side" declaration, saying this is a political reality.
"This is the road that the Taiwan people must take," the Chinese-language newspaper said.
Chen did not give a timetable for passing the referendum law. Analysts said Chen had apparently decided to take a harder line in a bid to move Beijing to the negotiating table after a three-year-old impasse in cross-strait ties.
Pro-unification supporters were stunned when Chen made his statements in the teleconference.
"Taiwan's future and destiny can only be decided by the 23 million people living on the island ... But how to make the decision when the time comes? The answer is what [we] have sought after -- referendum," he said.
Opposition politicans held the statements in contrast to his earlier pledge that he would not push for a plebiscite on whether Taiwan should declare independence or join China during his tenure, which is due to end in 2004.
In its editorial, the Chinese-language China Times said Chen's remarks had caused a "very serious" issue because "despite his status as head of state, any guarantees and any promises he made could be doubted from now on."
The paper also questioned Chen's defenders who said he was just trying to "describe the status quo" between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
"If the status quo could be described in such an easy and clear-cut way, then why are there `cross-strait problems' and `cross-strait disputes'?"
The paper added: "It seemed that as assumed by those pro-referendum activists, Taiwan could hereafter live a happy life after a referendum, and all the complicated factors regarding history, international community [responses] and jurisdiction could be totally ignored ... But is that true?"