updated 12/11/2003 1:10:14 PM ET 2003-12-11T18:10:14

China pronounced its premier’s visit to the United States a “complete success” on Thursday and applauded President Bush’s strongest statement yet opposing any unilateral moves by Taiwan toward independence.

“The Chinese have all along considered the Taiwan issue as the most important and sensitive in U.S.-China relations. We appreciate President Bush’s statement,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular briefing. “I believe the visit was a complete success.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, the main source of government comment in China, usually does not discuss Taiwan-related issues, saying they are an internal affair for domestic agencies. But Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit — and Bush’s remarks — offered a rare platform for China’s diplomatic arm to weigh in.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has faced intense pressure from the United States since he recently announced a March 20 election that asks voters to demand that China stop pointing hundreds of missiles at Taiwan. China fears such a referendum might eventually lead to a vote on formal independence.

American officials have said the referendum could raise the risk of conflict with China, which claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan. Bush said Tuesday that he opposes any moves that might disrupt the delicate status quo in Taiwan-China relations.

Taiwan's president sites U.S. belief in democracy
In Taiwan, Chen said Thursday that he believed that Washington would eventually support the vote.

“I believe America is a democratic country. It will absolutely support and encourage the public opinion of Taiwan’s 23 million people and their pursuit of deeper democracy and peace,” Chen said in a CNN interview, according to a presidential office statement.

Earlier Thursday, Chen argued that the referendum was in line with America’s democratic values, which should allow voters to express opinions about a threat.

“America’s founding spirit will by no means see the effort and determination for democracy and peace by 23 million people as a provocation,” he said, adding that all people in the world have the “right to be free from terror.”

Wen left the United States on Wednesday after a three-day visit and went on to Canada, the second leg of his trip. In a talk at Harvard Business School earlier Wednesday, he said China’s leaders are committed to building a democratic country but that conditions were not right yet for holding contested elections for senior officials.

“China is such a big country and our economic development is so uneven. To start with, I think the education level of the population is not high enough,” Wen said through a translator.

Wen also said China’s human rights situation was not “impeccable,” but the country was making progress and that the issue was inseparable from other efforts to open up the country.

“China’s reform and opening-up aims at promoting human rights,” he said. “The two are mutually dependent and reinforcing.”

Boston members of Falun Gong, whose spiritual movement was banned by China several years ago, issued a statement calling for “a peaceful resolution to this persecution.”

Bush condemns change of status quo
For China, the highlight of Wen’s trip was his presence Tuesday when Bush used his sharpest language yet in defining the Washington-Taipei relationship.

Bush said the United States opposes “any unilateral decision by either China or Taiwan to change the status quo.” He added: “And the comments and actions made by the leader of Taiwan indicate that he may be willing to make decisions unilaterally to change the status quo, which we oppose.”

The American president’s statement prompted this assessment from Liu in Beijing: “President Bush indicates he understands our position.”

Asked directly what differences remain between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, Liu demurred — but suggested some do.

“A visit alone cannot solve all issues between China and the United States,” he said.

Taiwan and China separated in 1949 after the Communists won a civil war against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and took power on the mainland. Chiang set up shop in Taiwan, which has operated as a self-ruling nation ever since.

Liu wouldn’t comment on Chen’s decision Thursday to select Annette Lu, Taiwan’s often incendiary vice president, as his running mate for re-election, saying that was a domestic matter with no relevance to the Foreign Ministry.

But he denounced any referendum pushed by Chen to demand that China stop pointing missiles at the island.

“The so-called referendum is quite deceptive and dangerous. Its aim is to separate Taiwan from the mainland,” he said. “China will never tolerate such activity.”

Many had predicted Chen would use newly passed laws to hold a referendum on Taiwan independence — a move that, by Beijing’s estimation, could provoke a war.

Liu also said the American regulation governing Washington’s non-diplomatic relations with Taipei was not legitimate.

“The so-called U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act was made unilaterally by the United States,” he said. “We believe such a policy is inconsistent with the three joint communiqués, and we do not recognize this act.”

The Taiwan Relations Act, among other things, is Washington’s justification for being the island’s largest military supplier. China regards the three “joint communiqués” it signed with the United States as the authoritative documents governing China-U.S. relations, though they are not legally binding.

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