TAIPEI Close to half a million people marched in Taiwan on Saturday to protest against the government's growing ties with China, where a tainted milk powder scandal has fueled fresh distrust toward Beijing among island citizens.
In the strongest display of opposition yet to President Ma Ying-jeou, demonstrators flooded central Taipei demanding that Ma step down over his friendly approach to Chinese officials.
China claims self-ruled Taiwan as its own and has threatened to use force, if necessary, to bring the island under its rule.
"If the government continues what it's doing now, we feel it's closing possibilities for the future of Taiwan," said main opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.
The protests, organized by the party, come ahead of a first-ever visit by Chen Yunlin, Beijing's top negotiator on Taiwan affairs, on November 3 and could continue into next month to get the official's attention.
China has claimed Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's Communists won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to the island. But the two sides have held historic talks and established new trade and transit links since Ma took office in May, following decades of hostility.
After a first wave of activists camped overnight outside the presidential office, protesters marched along five routes waving strongly worded banners urging Ma and his premier to step down. They urged the government to pull back from China.
One banner depicted Ma's Nationalist Party and the Communist Party of China as two dogs having sex.
"We don't want our government to sell Taiwan to China," said protester Wang Shu-chung, 42, a service worker. "This event will pressure the administration, but their skin is pretty thick."
Ma will maintain his current approach to China, spokesman Tony Wang said. "We've done a lot to protect people's health, and Ma has said the Republic of China is a sovereign, independent country," Wang said, using Taiwan's legal name.
From November 3 the two sides are expected to discuss new direct flight routes and food safety.
The toxic milk powder scandal in China, where at least four children have died, has prompted Taiwan to ban Chinese dairy imports and pull items from shelves in line with a global trend.
Former Chen Shen Shui-bian, an anti-China firebrand whose family is embroiled in a money laundering investigation, joined the demonstrations despite having received a bullet in the mail earlier this week and despite friction in the opposition party on whether to back him as the probe unfolds.
"I'm not afraid," Chen told reporters ahead of the event. "I'm not afraid of the People's Liberation Army."
(Editing by David Fox)