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Watchful eye on Taiwan's embattled Chen

The pro-independence president faces a recall bid Friday over charges of corruption and lying.

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Such talk alarms Beijing policymakers, who have never hidden their mistrust of Chen since he rode to power six years ago associated with pro-independence policies. They fear any tinkering with the Taiwanese Constitution could be a Trojan horse for independence.

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Those fears are simply "paranoia," scoffs Joseph Wu, head of the Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council, the body responsible for relations with Beijing. "China is always suspicious of Taiwan when it makes major steps toward democracy," he argues, and constitutional revision will make Beijing "very nervous."

"The government has pledged that we will not do any revision of the sovereignty issues" in the Constitution "because that would probably create a cross-Strait crisis," says Mr. Wu. Neither could the president push such an initiative through parliament, where a two-thirds majority is needed for constitutional revisions, Wu points out.

Instead, he says, Chen will propose changes to Taiwan's political structures to make the island more governable.

That initiative, however, is bound to spark a debate that will encompass calls for independence, Wu acknowledges. "When we engage in reform of these issues, people will question the merits ... of these (sensitive) articles" touching on such questions as Taiwan's territorial reach, for example, he forecasts.

Few Taiwanese appear to want independence at the moment. The most recent quarterly poll by the Mainland Affairs Council found that just 5.8 percent are in favor of independence as soon as possible, and another 14.7 percent are hoping for "the status quo now and independence later."

More than 80 percent favored maintaining the status quo for an undetermined period, whether they prefer eventual independence or eventual reunification with the mainland.

That preference for the status quo is shared, apparently, in Beijing. Where once the emphasis was on reunification, "the watchword now is antiseparation," says Mr. Guo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry think-tank analyst. "The mainland is focusing on stemming independence, not on reunification."

Nor does Washington want to see the boat rocked, a message that US officials are understood to have delivered forcefully to Chen. President Bush told Morris Chang, a Taiwanese envoy to the recent APEC economic summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, that "he hoped to see President Chen stick to (his) promises" that constitutional reform would steer clear of independence-related issues, Mr. Chang told reporters this week.

Chen has defied US wishes in the past, however, and even his own followers are still unclear exactly what their president's recent musings about founding a "second republic" or "freezing" parts of the existing Constitution might mean in practice.

While government officials insist there is nothing nefarious behind these proposals, others are skeptical. "When he is pushed into a corner, Chen plays with words," charges Mr. Chiang. "He insinuates things about independence, trying to appeal to the core supporters of the DPP. When he is in trouble, he always appeals to the base."