TAIPEI (AFP) – Exiled, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng on Monday urged Taiwan to stand up to China's "illegitimate" communist government, as he visited the self-governing island amid controversy over his future in the United States.
Chen told AFP in an interview that Taiwanese leaders including President Ma Ying-jeou and the parliamentary speaker had backed out of meeting him during his visit to Taipei, which he said was proof of meddling by Beijing.
"What we see today is that Mr. Ma is not free," said the 41-year-old, who last year staged a dramatic escape from house arrest in China before fetching up at the US embassy in Beijing and heading on to a new life in New York.
"Even though he is friendly and helps us come to Taiwan, we see that he is under pressure from China," Chen said.
The activist said Ma was forging a dangerous bargain in seeking to bolster commercial relations with Taiwan's former bitter rival China.
"First of all, you need to understand who you're dealing with. If you're interacting with the vast majority of people in China, it is the right choice. But you're interacting with the Chinese communist government, which is illegitimate in nature," he said.
"If Taiwan can't push democracy and freedom to China, the authoritarian (rule of) China will spread to Taiwan... if Taiwan or the free world can't insist on their principles, they will get hurt."
Taiwan split from the mainland at the end of a civil war in 1949, but still styles itself the "Republic of China". Beijing insists that the two entities must eventually reunite, by force if necessary.
Speaking on the new Chinese president Xi Jinping, Chen said he hadn't seen "any difference between Xi and (his predecessor) Hu Jintao. On the contrary, he is going backwards".
"I haven't seen Xi making any further performances that are worth praising ... Those in power all want to cling to power."
Chen echoed some of Ma's domestic critics who fear Taiwan is being lulled into a Chinese trap designed to bring about reunification by stealth, warning that this scenario was "something to be alarmed about".
The past five years under Ma have seen dramatic improvements in the cross-strait climate, including the signing of a historic trade agreement and the launch of direct flights between Taiwan and China.
But Taiwan's pro-independence opposition accuses Ma of bartering away Taiwan's vital interests in exchange for the "marginal" benefit of increased trade with China.
The president's office has not confirmed whether Ma ever planned to meet Chen in Taipei. Speaker Wang Jin-pyng said he was too busy with parliamentary business to sit down with the activist.
A self-taught lawyer who has been blind since childhood, Chen angered authorities in the eastern province of Shandong by exposing abuses under China's one-child population policy.
He was sentenced to four years in prison and later put under house arrest. He said he and his wife were beaten for continuing to speak out. The family alleges that Chen's jailed nephew has been denied medical parole despite suffering from life-threatening acute appendicitis.
After fleeing to the United States in May last year, Chen was awarded a one-year fellowship at New York University which has now expired.
NYU said this month that it would be parting ways with him, and denied any link between that decision and its plans to expand operations in mainland China's education market.
Chen, however, has claimed that NYU was the subject of "unrelenting" pressure from Beijing to end his study programme.
In his AFP interview and at a news conference earlier Monday, Chen would not comment on his future plans. He has received offers from at least two other US academic institutions, according to NYU.
One university in Taiwan is believed also to have expressed an interest in inviting Chen to the island as a visiting scholar, said Yang Sen-hong, chairman of the Association for China Human Rights, which is hosting his high-profile visit.