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China Warns Taiwanese Leaders About Presidential Elections

By Rone Tempest
Los Angeles Times

On the one hand, Chinese Premier Li Peng did not issue a timetable for the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan as an influential Hong Kong newspaper had predicted, sending Taiwanese markets into a panic.

On the other hand, the hard-line Chinese leader did not rule out the use of force and did warn Taiwanese leaders that employing upcoming presidential elections on the island as a justification for political independence would be viewed dimly in Beijing.

"Whatever changes might occur in the way in which the leadership is chosen," Li said in a high-profile speech Tuesday at the Great Hall of the People, "they cannot change the fact that Taiwan is part of China and its leaders are only leaders of a region in China."

In a reference to Taiwan's first national presidential elections, scheduled for March 23, Li warned that: "It will lead nowhere if some people attempt to use the change of Taiwan leaders as an excuse to put their separatist activities in a legal guise."

Delivered amid growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait fueled by reports that the Chinese military has prepared a battle plan to recapture the prosperous island, Li's speech was considered an important gauge of China's position.

The speech took on added significance when the Hong Kong Economic Times, a Chinese-language newspaper, reported this week that the Chinese premier would outline a specific timetable for reunification.

Li did not mention any specific timetable. And in Taiwan, officials reported with relief that Li's speech marked no significant change in the Chinese position.

"Li Peng's talk today contained no new elements," said Taiwanese vice-premier Hsu Li-teh, as quoted by the state-run Central News Agency. "This kind of talk has been repeated many times."

In substance, Li's speech varied little from a policy address on Taiwan delivered a year ago by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Li restated China's commitment to a "peaceful reunification of the motherland" through negotiations. But, like Jiang, he warned, "In the final analysis, we cannot give up the use of force."