Tens of thousands of opposition demonstrators marched through the streets of the central Taiwanese city of Taichung on Sunday, ahead of the arrival of a senior Chinese envoy for trade talks that some on the island fear could eventually lead to unification.
Under a leaden gray sky, the demonstrators chanted pro-independence slogans and waved anti-China banners to protest the visit of China's top Taiwan negotiator, Chen Yunlin, whom they view as a stalking horse for Beijing's proclaimed policy of bringing Taiwan back into its fold. The sides split amid civil war in 1949.
Chen was scheduled to arrive in Taichung on Monday for five days of talks. He is set to sign four new commercial accords with Taiwanese officials, adding to the 10 already in the books.
Protester Hsu Wen, a 55-year-old businessman from the southern city of Kaohsiung, said Chen's visit would help pave the way for a loss of Taiwan's hard-won democratic freedoms and its de facto independence.
"It's all very clear (China) wants to use the economy as a means to force us to unification," Hsu said.
Buoyed by a strong showing in local elections earlier this month, the Democratic Progressive Party sponsored Sunday's demonstration to press home its message that President Ma Ying-jeou's signature policy of tightening economic links with Beijing is threatening the well-being of Taiwan's people and paving the way for a Chinese takeover.
Since assuming office in May 2008, Ma has eased cross-strait tensions to their lowest level in 60 years, turning his back on his predecessor Chen Shui-Bian's pro-independence policies amid a welter of business-boosting initiatives.
They include launching regular air and sea links between the sides and ending across-the-board restrictions on Chinese investment in Taiwan _ precursors, Ma says, to a partial Taiwan-China trade agreement meant to be signed next year.
Police put Sunday's crowd in Taichung at 20,000-30,000. Some 500 officers were on hand to control the protesters, mindful that a visit by Chen late last year provoked repeated clashes between authorities and demonstrators.
This time there were no reports of trouble.
Taiwan's powerful business community strongly favors Ma's approach, seeing it as necessary to prevent the island's economic marginalization amid growing trade ties between Beijing and neighboring Asian countries.
Washington also supports it enthusiastically. Despite shifting its China recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the U.S. remains Taiwan's most important ally and fears being drawn into the armed conflict that Beijing threatens would follow any opposition move to formalize Taiwan's de facto independence. It sees Ma's policies as strongly reducing that possibility.
The DPP, however, believes the president's China-friendly push sets the stage for an eventual Chinese takeover of the island _ a charge Ma vehemently denies.
The DPP says Ma's trade deal _ formally known as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, or ECFA _ will flood the island with cheap Chinese products, prompting massive job losses.
"Our president has turned blind to the possibility that jobs will be lost" after signing the ECFA with China, DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen told protesters.
As recently as five months ago, most of the Taiwanese public accepted Ma's argument that closer economic ties with China would aid Taiwanese prosperity, even allowing for the global economic downturn.
But Ma's mishandling of the response to a devastating typhoon in August began to dent his popularity, as did a more recent miscue involving secret negotiations on the removal of a ban on some U.S. beef imports.
Earlier this month, Ma's Nationalist Party beat the DPP by only two percentage points in local elections _ a far cry from the 17-point margin Ma enjoyed over his DPP rival in the March 2008 presidential poll.