Tens of thousands of Taiwan independence campaigners took to the streets Saturday for a major rally that is a rebuke to Beijing and a challenge to the island’s already embattled government.
The protest in central Taipei 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 slogans and waving flags reading “Independence Referendum”.
“Want Referendum!” and “Oppose Annexation!” the crowd shouted.
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, political and judicial systems, but has never declared formal independence from the mainland.
Beijing has warned 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, Lee Teng-hui and 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,” he added.
Families brought their young children to the event, but the majority of protesters were older residents, with some pro-independence church groups also joining the rally.
“Only through holding a referendum can Taiwanese people show to the international community our right to build an independent new country,” said Tsai Wen-li, 63, a retired postal worker who wore a T-shirt reading “Taiwan is my country”.
Engineer Rex Yang, 35, described Taiwan as an “orphan in the international community”.
“Taiwanese people want Taiwan to become a normal country…that is why I stand out here today”, he told AFP.
Even though the DPP is traditionally independence-leaning, Tsai has said she wants to maintain the status quo with China.
But that has not prevented relations 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 firms to list Taiwan as part of China on their company websites.
At the same time, 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 Tsai would be unlikely to allow such an amendment which would be a red flag to Beijing.
Chinese authorities have already said Formosa Alliance should not go down what they called a “dangerous path”.
The DPP publicly prohibited its officials and candidates from attending Saturday’s rally, instead holding its own protest against China’s “annexation” of Taiwan in the southern city of Kaohsiung, its traditional heartland.
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”.
Organisers said 10,000 people attended the Kaohshiung event.
Holding a separate rally was seen as a way for the DPP to distance itself from activists but to reflect the feelings of some of its more pro-independence members and supporters.