The first protest in central in Taipei came as President Tsai Ing-wen struggles to appease both Beijing and independence factions. Photo: AFP
Thousands of Taiwan independence campaigners took to the streets Saturday for a major rally that is a rebuke to Beijing and a challenge to the island's already embattled government.
The protest in central Taipei came as China increasingly pushes its claim to the self-ruling democratic island and President Tsai Ing-wen struggles to appease Beijing and independence factions.
It was the first large-scale protest calling for an outright independence vote since Taiwan first became a democracy more than 20 years ago.
Organisers claimed a turnout of 80,000. A police estimate was not immediately available.
Demonstrators gathered outside the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters chanting slogans and waving flags reading "Independence Referendum".
"Want Referendum!" and "Oppose Annexation!" the crowd shouted.
China still sees Taiwan as part of its territory to be reunified, despite the two sides being ruled separately since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949.
Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state, with its own currency, political and judicial systems, but has never declared formal independence from the mainland.
Beijing has warned it would respond with force if Taiwan tried an official split.
Organised by new group Formosa Alliance, which is backed by two pro-independence former Taiwan presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, the rally called for a public vote on whether the island should formally declare independence from China.
"Only through holding a referendum can Taiwanese people show to the international community our right to build an independent new country," said Tsai Wen-li, 63, a retired postal worker who wore a T-shirt reading "Taiwan is my country".
Engineer Rex Yang, 35, described Taiwan as an "orphan in the international community".
"Taiwanese people want Taiwan to become a normal country...that is why I stand out here today", he told AFP.