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Wednesday, 15 March, 2000, 18:16 GMT
Taiwan's appeal to China's young
Taiwan elections
Taiwan is gripped by election fever
By Beijing correspondent Duncan Hewitt

As ever, relations with China are the major issue in Taiwan's elections.


Election campaigner
The polls suggest a close result
But whereas reunification with Taiwan is a big talking point among China's politicians, it is not something that figures high on the agenda for younger people on the streets of the capital Beijing.

Customers entering a tea-house on one of the city's busiest shopping streets are greeted with a chant of "welcome" from the staff. The ritual, like the decor, is distinctly Taiwanese.

Once inside, customers swing casually on wooden seats suspended by ropes from fake trees, slurping balls of sago jelly through straws from tall glasses of milky tea - another Taiwan speciality. It's a popular combination.

military
China has threatened to use military force
''I like the atmosphere here,'' says one Chinese woman. ''It's very appealing, just right for young people to meet and chat. It's the Taiwanese style.''

''This kind of place suits modern people,'' adds another customer. ''It's relaxing and I like these Taiwanese drinks. We never had anything like this before.''

Pop

For China's young generation, Taiwanese popular culture has become a glamorous addition to their world.

One of the island's most famous pop stars, A-Mei, from one of Taiwan's non-Chinese indigenous peoples, can be seen every day advertising soft drinks on Chinese state TV.

Yet none of this can drown out the constant rumble of political rhetoric.

Taiwan singer A-Mei
Taiwanese stars like A-Mei go down well in Beijing
China's President, Jiang Zemin, was in jovial mood last week when he met Taiwanese journalists covering the annual session of the country's legislature.

Much of the exchange was conducted in quotes from classical Chinese poetry but Mr Jiang's message was plain.

Asked if China's recent threats were unnecessarily leading to violence between family members, President Jiang said it was supporters of Taiwan independence who would be held responsible for pitting brother against brother.

Worried

Such remarks may in part be just another example of the rhetoric which always precedes Taiwanese elections as Beijing seeks to scare voters away from the pro-independence candidates.

But since Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui proposed his so-called two-states theory last year, China's leaders have clearly become worried, seeing the island drifting ever further away from reunification.

Taiwanese shares
Taiwanese shares have got the jitters
For the first time in years they have threatened force if Taiwan indefinitely puts off political negotiations. Prime Minister Zhu Rongji made Beijing's concerns clear in a speech to legislators.

''We will continue to stick to the basic principle of peaceful reunification,'' he said.

''But if there are serious separatist activities aimed at undermining China's sovereignty, such as advocating the two-states theory or Taiwanese independence, we certainly won't sit by and watch.''

Force

Back in the sago tea shop, the government's attempts to focus popular anger on Taiwan's leaders appear to have found favour with some.

Zhu Rongji
Zhu Rongji: We won't sit by
''I don't think Taiwanese independence would be good for anyone,'' said one man. ''A peaceful solution would be best. But if it's not possible, then we'll have to use force. It's the only way.''

Others, though, seem less concerned.

''I'm not particularly interested in reunification,'' says a woman. ''Young people aren't too interested in political things.''

Investment

One or two Chinese academics have even suggested that today's economically-minded Chinese citizens would see a war with Taiwan as too costly, while some analysts believe China needs its tens of billions of dollars of Taiwanese investment and couldn't afford to risk international isolation by using force against the island.

Taiwan port
Chinese aggression could damage trade
Yet the issue is a hugely sensitive one, particularly for older Chinese leaders, who are thought to be anxious to achieve reunification as a part of their legacy and as a way of boosting the image of the Communist Party.

So the outcome of Saturday's election and the way the winner behaves in the coming months may have a crucial influence on the future peace or otherwise of this region.

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See also:

14 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
China warns Taiwan over elections
07 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Taiwan candidate rejects Beijing threat
06 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
China's army warns Taiwan
13 Mar 00 | Business
Taiwan stocks plunge
29 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
China renews Taiwan threat
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