Autocracy is 'evil', Taiwan president says after China threatens death for separatism

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan's President Lai Ching-te visits soldiers and air force personnel in Hualien

By Ben Blanchard

TAIPEI (Reuters) -Democracy is not a crime and autocracy is the real "evil", Taiwan President Lai Ching-te said on Monday after China threatened to impose the death penalty in extreme cases for "diehard" Taiwan independence separatists.

China, which views Taiwan as its own territory, has made no secret of its dislike of Lai, who took office last month, saying he is a "separatist", and staged war games shortly after his inauguration.

On Friday, China ramped up its pressure on Taiwan by issuing new legal guidelines to punish those it says support the island's formal independence, though Chinese courts have no jurisdiction on the democratically governed island.

Asked about China's move at a news conference at the presidential office in Taipei, Lai first reiterated his sympathy for recent flooding in southern China before responding.

"I want to stress: democracy is not a crime; it's autocracy that is the real evil. China has absolutely no right to sanction Taiwan's people just because of the positions they hold. What's more, China has no right to go after Taiwan people's rights across borders," he said.

According China, anyone who does not uphold "reunification" is therefore a Taiwan independence supporter, Lai added.

"I also want to call on China to face up to the existence of the Republic of China and have exchanges and dialogue with Taiwan's democratically elected, legitimate government," he said, using Taiwan's formal name. "If this is not done, relations between Taiwan and China will only become more and more estranged."

The U.S. State Department on Monday also expressed its concern at China's threats.

"We strongly condemn the escalatory and destabilising language and actions from PRC officials," spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters, referring to the People's Republic of China. "Threats and legal warfare will not achieve peaceful resolution to cross-strait differences."


Taiwan said that since Thursday, there has been a sharp increase in Chinese military flights as Beijing carried out a "joint combat readiness patrol" near the island.

Between Thursday and Sunday, Taiwan says it detected 115 Chinese military aircraft operating nearby, getting as close at 31 nautical miles (57 km) from the southern tip of the island.

Taiwan has said that for the past four years China has carried out regular military activity around the island as part of a "grey zone" pressure campaign.

Taiwan's annual Han Kuang war games next month will aim to mimic actual combat as closely as possible given a rapidly rising "enemy threat" from China, a senior official said.

Lai rejects Beijing's sovereignty claims and says only Taiwan's people can decide their future. He has repeatedly offered talks with China but been rebuffed.

China says any move by Taiwan to declare formal independence would be grounds to attack the island.

The government in Taipei says Taiwan is already an independent country, the Republic of China, and that it does not plan to change that. The Republican government fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's Communists.

Lai also faces domestic challenges, as his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lost its majority in parliament in the same election in January that brought him to power.

Speaking at the news conference on Monday, Lai said he would ask the constitutional court to stay a package of contested parliament reforms the opposition has passed and consider whether they comply with the constitution.

The opposition says the reforms, which among other things criminalise contempt of parliament by government officials, are needed to bring more accountability, but the DPP says they were forced through without proper discussion.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and Gerry Doyle)