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Taiwan moves beyond the one-party state

By Ross Terrill
Boston, May 25, 2004

AN ERA IS ending in Taiwan. The one-party state is dying. Unfortunately for the Bush administration, which needs calm in East Asia, this means that the identity of Taiwan will intensify and hopes for "One China" will fade.

Following the March 20 reelection of President Chen Shui Bian's Democratic Progressive Party, the losing Nationalist Party, or KMT, behaved as if it were a state even though it has lost such entitlement.

The center of gravity of Taiwan politics shifted. Washington overreacted to Chen's win and his policies. Yet the same people under-reacted to the historical shift from a one party-state.

The party state conceptdrew both on Lenin's communism and Hitler's fascism. True, the Kuomintang was a mild form. The Republic of China established in Nanjing by the KMT in 1928 was never a totalitarian one-party state in the Lenin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong molds.

But KMT leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek borrowed much from 20th-century authoritarianism as well as from autocratic Chinese tradition. No competing political party could challenge the KMT for legitimacy in Nanjing in the 1930s. The same was true in Taiwan for four decades.

The KMT established cells in the military. Universities were expected to be loyal to the KMT. The state anthem began as a KMT party song.

Lien said Chen "stole the state" on March 20. KMT leaders said the election was "unfair."

The KMT damaged only itself with such gripes based on speculation. It seemed unable to behave as one party among others. Lien made matters worse by boycotting Chen's inauguration. We have reached a period in which Taiwan is constructing a localized politics from below. Chen has no ties to the Mao-Chiang civil war and its "One China" footnote. In a talk with me in April, he called One China a "fairy tale" and said "Taiwan's democracy is its best missile defense." He said "a race or civilization does not necessarily issue in a single state."

Beijing offers Taiwan "autonomy." But "autonomous" Tibet and Xinjiang today exude an atmosphere of colonial rule. "Autonomy" to Beijing means: We will take care of you, gently if you behave, harshly if you get ideas. Have a good time for 50 years (this is the carrot offered to Hong Kong) and then you must enter the monastery of socialism.

One day the concept of a party-state will die in the mainland -- where Chiang's KMT was born -- as it dies in Taiwan. Beijing says China is too big and not sufficiently economically advanced for democracy. But Taiwan and Hong Kong are small and economically advanced. This should evoke Beijing's endorsement of democracy for both. But China is terrified of the will of the people in any context.

The PRC ought to be careful in talking of democracy as an enemy of stability. Sometimes, dictatorship's brittleness threatens stability.

Often, behind the loud noises of democracy, stability is found.

Chen's second term will clarify Taiwan's standing as a sovereign, independent country. Chen has his faults, but there is zero chance he will "declare Taiwan independent." At the same time, in his talk with me, he rejected the idea of "party" directing or tutoring "state." He elaborated in his speech last week: "An accountable governing party and a loyal opposition together represent the voice of the people."

Beyond Chen's second term, many possibilities will arise. Taiwan will never depart from China. Geography and cultural roots dictate it. But independence from China does not necessarily mean hostility to it.

For the moment, a regime exists in Beijing that is myopic about democracy. It says, "Hitler was produced by democracy," and this led to the destruction of the Jews. It hints that Russia's turn toward democracy is regrettable.

To all this there is one answer, which, alas, no party-state has ever accepted. Democracy is a method for a free people to handle its differences. It doesn't guarantee a fully happy outcome each time. But the self-realization of the individual -- the highest value in politics -- can ask nothing less than just that freedom to choose.

Fifty years ahead no one can say where China's boundaries will lie. One China can live on as a gleam in the eye for some. Washington must say that Taiwan's future is an open question subject to the free choice of all the people involved and that for now the extension of Beijing's party-state rule to Taiwan is not feasible or in American or East Asian interests.

Beijing is fiery in word, but military action against Taiwan would spoil three decades of the China's economic development, wreck relations with the United States, sully China's reputation in Asia, and probably loosen the Communist Party's grip on power.

Ross Terrill, author of "The New Chinese Empire," is an associate in research at the Fairbank Center at Harvard University.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 05/25/2004.