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China activist praises democratic Taiwan as row erupts in parliament


Fighting broke out in Taiwan's parliament on Tuesday as legislators scuffled over a tax bill, while a visiting Chinese activist delivered a speech praising the island's democracy in a neighbouring room.

Discussions were brought to a standstill after dozens of lawmakers from the ruling Kuomintang party clashed with opposition members as both groups tried to seize the chamber's podium.

TV images of the parliamentary row, broadcast live nationwide, showed two angry women legislators scuffling and an opposition lawmaker spraying coffee at her Kuomintang counterparts. A female legislator from the Kuomintang was also seen bursting into tears after she was forced off the podium by a male opponent.

Exiled, blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, who was delivering a speech in parliament at the time of the row, called it a "natural phenomenon" when asked to comment on the incident.

"I would rather see brawls in parliament than tanks driving in streets and squares," Chen said to applause in a packed auditorium, referring to China's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy students on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"Protest is a form to exercise civil rights in the free world, it's a natural phenomenon, there is nothing strange about it."

Chen, 41, had been in New York since May last year after he escaped house arrest and fled to the US embassy in Beijing, triggering a brief crisis in relations between China and America.

The self-taught lawyer arrived in Taiwan Sunday for a 19-day visit he described as a "learning trip" to observe its democratic system, rule of law and freedom of speech.

He voiced hopes that Taiwan's experience -- the island was a one-party state before it transitioned to democracy in the early 1990s -- would help spur democratisation in China.

"Taiwan's success is a beacon in the Chinese world... Democracy is not easily obtained, it needs to be treasured and protected to allow it to mature, expand, and develop," he said.

In the past Taiwan's parliament has been notorious for hosting mass brawls between legislators but over the last few years debates have remained peaceful.

Tuesday's row centred around proposed changes to a controversial capital gains tax on shares -- which the government said was part of their efforts to close a growing gap between rich and poor -- that took effect in January.

But since then it has sparked waves of opposition from influential business groups and big stock traders.

Chen, who has been blind since childhood, angered Chinese authorities for exposing abuses under the country's one-child population policy. He was sentenced to four years in prison and later put under house arrest.

China and Taiwan have been governed separately since the end of a civil war in 1949, but Beijing still claims sovereignty over the island.