25 March 2004 / Taipei
Even the Kuomintang is starting to take more account of the Taiwanese desire for greater freedom from China
"THIS makes us feel like maybe we are the Philippines or one of those third-world countries." So complained Su Chi, a spokesman for Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT), as thousands of his party's supporters rallied in front of the presidential palace in Taipei in protest against the outcome of the island's presidential polls on March 20th. Mr Su was not referring to the air-horn-blasting demonstrators, but to the events that had riled them. In particular, the KMT insinuates that the shooting of President Chen Shui-bian on the day before the ballot may have been rigged to gain sympathy for the incumbent, who won by a tiny margin.
Suddenly, after more than a decade of remarkably smooth transformation from one-party authoritarianism to multi-party democracy, Taiwan has hit a bumpy patch. The KMT and its allies have called the election unfair and have refused to concede defeat. Ironically, the one-time party of the establishment has taken to the streets. Disdainful though they profess to be of Philippines-style politics, some of its leaders, including the presidential aspirant and party chairman, Lien Chan, and his running-mate, James Soong (who heads the smaller People First Party), apparently hope that "people power" will force Mr Chen to bypass cumbersome legal processes and order a recount or, if that fails to secure them victory, another election.
On Thursday, Mr Chen had agreed to a recount, but his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was still bickering with the KMT over how this should be done --whether by presidential order (which would be quicker, says the KMT) or by introducing a new law mandating a re-count when the margin of victory is less than 1% of the vote. Mr Chen won by a mere 29,518 votes out of 13.3m cast. KMT leaders appeared divided over their tactics --whether to press for a recount, or insist on a whole new election.
Without the shooting, and given how close the race had been, Mr Chen might well have lost. He and his vice-president, Annette Lu, who at the time was standing next to him in an open-topped jeep, sustained only minor injuries. But the incident dominated the news in the final hours before the vote. The KMT accuses Mr Chen of being deliberately slow to release full details of the incident in order to fuel suspicion that the wounds were graver.
China would certainly have liked the KMT to win. It is afraid that Mr Chen will use a second term of office to push forward more forcefully his efforts to assert Taiwan's separateness from the mainland. Mr Chen has said he would like to conduct a referendum in 2006 to gain approval for a new constitution for the island. China worries that this constitution will abandon the island's claim to be part of Chinese territory. It is also concerned that Mr Chen may regard Beijing's hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 as an opportunity to press for independence, given that China would not want to ruin the event by going to war.
But would Taiwan under a KMT leadership really be much more compliant? Whatever the outcome of the current furore (few expect the result to be reversed), Taiwan's dealings with the mainland will remain fraught. In the months leading up to the presidential poll, the KMT -- hitherto an advocate of eventual reunification with China--shifted its stance in order to win over an electorate that increasingly regards itself as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. Mr Lien echoed Mr Chen's notion that Taiwan and China are already separate states. A senior KMT official even suggested that formal independence may one day be a possibility.
But its past still haunts the KMT. Among the middle-class protesters who have joined continuous rallies outside the presidential palace this week, some furiously denied that the KMT espouses reunification. Traditional DPP supporters are unconvinced. They are mainly concentrated in the south of the island and are resentful of the KMT's mainland origins and its erstwhile suppression of Taiwanese culture. Chao Chien-min of Taiwan's National Chengchi University says accusations that the KMT agreed with China's Communist leaders on the notion of "one China" provided the DPP with a very effective weapon in its campaign for Mr Chen's re-election.
Many KMT supporters accuse Mr Chen of fuelling tensions between mainlanders (or their descendants) who arrived at the end of the civil war and other ethnic Chinese whose ancestors migrated to the island in the preceding centuries. Chu Yun-han of National Taiwan University says support for or opposition to reunification is no longer the main dividing issue. It is whether Taiwan should maintain the status quo or seek formal independence (and if so, how fast). This challenges a tenet of America's relationship with China, the "Shanghai Communiqué" of 1972, in which America acknowledges that "all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China".
Some in the KMT (whose full name, as DPP politicians like to point out, translates as ‘the Chinese Nationalist Party') realise the need for change. Assuming he loses, in the coming months, many expect Mr Lien, who was born on the mainland, to step aside in favour of a younger politician with stronger appeal to native Taiwanese. The Taiwan-born speaker of Taiwan's legislature, Wang Chin-pyng, is often suggested as a candidate. Another likely contender is Ma Ying-jeou, who is mayor of Taipei. Mr Ma was born in Hong Kong of mainland parents, but his charisma gives him wide appeal.
Taiwanese identity is only likely to get stronger. In recent years, school curriculums in Taiwan have changed to give much greater emphasis to Taiwanese culture, history and language. Wen Ming-Cheng, the principal of Dong Men Primary School in Taipei, says most members of his generation would identify themselves as Chinese. "Now if you ask [the children] who is Chinese, only one or two will put their hands up. And if you ask them why, they will say their parents told them."