Taiwan Leader Visits Birthplace On China Trip

Thousands turned out to catch a glimpse of Taiwan's opposition leader and his family on Sunday as they paid their respects to his grandmother's mainland grave for the first time in 60 years.

Nationalist party chairman Lien Chan's trip to Xi'an (search), the city where he was born and his grandmother died during World War II, follows a landmark visit to Beijing where he met China's President and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao.

That meeting was the highest level contact between the two parties since China (search) and Taiwan (search) split amid civil war in 1949.

"To come here today is very moving," Lien said. "For more than 60 years, because of the situation across the Taiwan Strait (search), no one from the Lien family could come."

As many as 15,000 townspeople lined the hills around the grave site to wish him well, smiling, clapping and cheering when he arrived. Some waved banners saying "Welcome Home Lien Chan."

Lien, his wife, and three of their grown children knelt on cushions and bowed before the black gravestone set in a small garden on the outskirts of Xi'an. Traditional offerings of candles, incense and fruit were set in front of the grave.

After the ceremony, the crowds poured down the hillside to visit the grave themselves, some carrying flowers.

"This is a historic occasion so of course I wanted to come," said Wang Xiujian, 62, a retired civil servant. "I hope the two sides can take constructive steps to build contacts."

Massive crowds have greeted Lien at every stop of his mainland tour since he arrived at the former Nationalist capital of Nanjing on Tuesday.

The effusive public reception mirrors Beijing's recent warming to its former Nationalist foes as it seeks to isolate Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party supports formal independence for the self-ruled island.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has said it will attack if the island makes its de-facto independence official.

Chen on Sunday said he will send a personal message to Chinese President Hu with another Taiwanese opposition leader, James Soong, who is scheduled to visit Beijing from Thursday. He did not say what the message would contain.

Like the Nationalists, Soong's small People First Party also favors eventual unification with China but has friendlier ties to Chen.

"Regardless which political party or leader China wants to meet, eventually it must talk with Taiwan's popularly elected leader and the Taiwan government, and this will be the normal dialogue to start normalization of relations," Chen said.

Lien was to head later Sunday to Shanghai, China's commercial capital and home to the offices and factories of tens of thousands of Taiwanese business executives.

Taiwan barred contact with the mainland for decades, but has eased those limits since the early 1990s. Since then, Taiwanese companies have invested about $100 billion in China.

Opinion polls released by Taiwan's two leading newspapers on Saturday showed many Taiwanese viewed Lien's trip as conducive to peace. The United Daily News poll said 56 percent of respondents believed the trip will help improve ties, while another poll by the China Times said 50 percent of the respondents held positive views about Lien's trip.

The polls, both conducted by telephone on Friday, had margins of error of 3.3 and 3.6 percent points respectively.