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19 January 2004

• U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Travels to China
• Chen Shui-bian Announces Detailed Plans for Referendum
• Chinese Government Vows to Improve Safety in the Workplace

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Travels to China

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met with senior Chinese military officials in Beijing last week. Myers visit to Beijing was the first by a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Bush Administration, and signifies the strengthening relationship between the United States and China. In recent years, China has cooperated with the U.S. in the war on terrorism, and is now playing an important role to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Gen. Myers’ discussions with Chinese officials, including his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin, focused substantially on issues relating to Taiwan. Myers defended the United States policy of selling Taiwan advanced weaponry and reiterated that the Bush administration is committed to providing the self-governing island with the arms necessary to defend itself. Significantly, Myers did not mention Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s decision to hold a controversial referendum this March despite strong objections from President Bush.

Conservatives in Washington oppose military exchanges with China, arguing that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gains more from the exchanges than the U.S. does. However recent evidence suggests that the Chinese military is slowly creeping towards greater transparency. For example, the Washington Post reported on January 16 that Myers was given a tour of the PLA’s secretive space command headquarters in Beijing – the first time a foreign official was granted such access. Gen. Myers has stated that the Pentagon is committed to increased exchanges with the PLA at all levels.

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Chen Shui-bian Announces Detailed Plans for Referendum

On January 16, Chen announced plans to hold a controversial referendum alongside the March 20 presidential elections. The referendum will ask voters two questions: whether Taiwan should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons if China refuses to remove the more than 250 missiles it currently has aimed at the island; and whether Taiwan should negotiate the terms of their relationship with Beijing. The proposed referendum is substantially less provocative than Chen’s comments in the past few months have suggested. Initially, Chen proposed asking whether Taiwan should demand that Beijing dismantle its missile arsenal and whether Taiwan should declare independence.

Top officials in Beijing denounced the planned referendum and warned that it will push cross-strait relations to the brink of danger. Beijing believes that Chen will use the referendum as a precedent for an island-wide vote for independence. In recent months high-level government and military officials in China have repeatedly warned Chen that such a referendum is unacceptable and could lead to open conflict in the Taiwan Strait if the island declared formal independence or delayed reunification indefinitely. The leaders in Beijing view the island as a renegade province and have staked their government’s legitimacy on its ability to consolidate and preserve national unity.

Even President Bush, whose administration provides Taiwan with advanced military equipment and training, has criticized Chen’s plans to hold a referendum because could upset the status quo. Many believe that Chen’s provocative moves in recent months are calculated attempts to increase his support in the coming election. In the past, harsh criticism and threats from Beijing have only strengthened Chen’s domestic support. Among his critics is Taiwanese presidential hopeful Lien Chan. Dr. Lien questions the legality of Chen’s referendum and is currently challenging the plan in the Taiwanese judicial system.

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Chinese Government Vows to Improve Safety in the Workplace

A front-page editorial in the People’s Daily on January 19 announced plans to reduce the high death toll in China’s perilous workplaces. The government released its decision following a 2-day conference of the State Council on safety in the workplace. The editorial states: “Industrial safety is connected with the safety of people’s lives and property as well as the overall situation of reform, development, and stability…. Keeping workers safe is a basic demand of society.”

The front-page editorial in the People’s Daily carries so much weight because it is the official newspaper of the government. The government frequently announces important policies as editorials in the news.

China currently has a terrible record for workplace safety. As the January 19 New York Times notes, “At least 4,200 people were killed in coal mines alone last year, and the official death toll of 14,675 from all industrial accidents is widely considered a conservative estimate.”

On December 26, 2003 a gas explosion in Chongqing killed 243 workers and forced the evacuation of more than 60,000 residents from the surrounding area. The new policy suggests that the government is responding quickly and decisively to prevent future industrial disasters. The state-owned oil company, PetroChina, is offering US$3.6 million dollars in compensation to victims and family members of those who died in the explosion.

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