TAIPEI (AFP) — Tens of thousands of protesters joined a major anti-China rally Saturday to denounce Taiwan's warming ties with Beijing, which they say threaten the self-ruled island's sovereignty.
The demonstrators, many dressed in the opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) green, marched through Taipei's streets waving flags and chanting.
They hit out at the visit of Beijing's top negotiator in little over a week, and voiced anger at a series of Chinese export scandals including milk products tainted by industrial chemical melamine.
"Opposing toxic products, defending sovereignty," the protesters shouted.
The pro-independence DPP has accused President Ma Ying-jeou's government of failing to stand up to China over the melamine scare, which killed four babies on the mainland and made three children and one woman sick here.
"We are rallying today to give the government a warning. We want it to defend Taiwan's sovereignty and to improve the economy," said DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.
Organisers said half a million people turned out for what looked like the biggest protest since Beijing-friendly Ma took office in May. No police estimate was available.
Former President Chen Shui-bian, who quit the DPP after money laundering claims against him and his family surfaced earlier this year, joined the march and was met by a cheering crowd.
Chen, dressed in a green T-shirt, chanted pro-Taiwan slogans and gave the thumbs-up to his supporters before beginning to march. He left shortly after arriving at the final rallying point at the presidential office square.
"We oppose the government's pro-China stance because it will jeopardise Taiwan's security and we don't want to see Chen Yunlin here," said protester Huang Mei-feng, a saleswoman from central Changhua county.
President Ma, who was on a visit to the north of the island during the march, said he would welcome talks with Tsai on political and economic issues, a spokesman said.
More than 5,000 police were at the scene, the National Police Agency said, amid reported threats against Tsai and Chen.
Police this week arrested a man for allegedly threatening to harm the two, while Chen said he had received information of a separate death threat warning him against attending the rally.
Relations with Beijing have improved dramatically since Ma came to power, and he has promised to boost business and tourism links with China following eight years of strained relations under the DPP government.
Chen Yunlin, head of China's quasi-official Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, is expected to arrive on November 3 for the first such high-level talks held in Taiwan.
Chen, whose organisation is authorised by Beijing to handle civilian exchanges with Taipei in the absence of official contacts, is expected to discuss establishing closer shipping and air cargo links.
Trade and travel ties between China and Taiwan have been severely limited since 1949, but talks in June led to the first regular direct flights in nearly six decades.
Nevertheless emotions still run high, and Chen's number two Zhang Mingqing was jostled and shoved to the ground by pro-independence activists during his visit to the island earlier this week.
China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still regards the island as part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.
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