Washington Times:

When Taiwan speaks, the world listens

Washington, 2 December 1998. The Washington Times published the following article by Helle Bering, who is deputy editorial page editor.

When Taiwan speaks, the world listens

By Helle Bering


It is hard to imagine a scene less like the starched and orderly procession of Communist Party officials, solemnly gathered to ratify government policy in Beijing every five years for the National People's Congress, than the election campaign right now in full swing (literally) in Taiwan.

As one of the few new truly democratic countries of the 1990s, Taiwan seems to have set itself the task of proving to the world that Chinese people believe every bit as much in freedom of expression and the one-man-one-vote principle as anybody else, no matter what the Communists say.

Indeed, when it comes to the vigorous exercise of political expression, the Taiwanese stand second to none. This week an almighty brawl broke out between a candidate from the Taiwan Independence Party and a candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Hot tempers flared as the former accused the latter of being a shill for Chinese President Jiang Zemin. While one of the combatants had to be led away, bleeding from the face, the other's daughter apparently was hit on the head with a baseball bat. On Taiwan, accusations of sympathy with the mainland are fighting words.

But elections on Taiwan are watched the world over with keen interest for other reasons as well, not least on the Chinese mainland, and certainly in the United States, too. It will be recalled that Taiwan's March 1996 presidential election brought mainland China and the United States as close to the brink of war as they have ever been, as the People's Liberation Army shot missiles over the Taiwan Strait to rattle the Taiwanese. The United States, for its part, responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the area to calm tempers. If there is one issue at this time capable of igniting a major confrontation between the United States and China, it remains the status of Taiwan.

What the PRC hoped to achieve was to undermine the candidacy of incumbent President Lee Teng-Hui, accused by Beijing of harboring ambitions for declaring Taiwanese independence -- or "splittism," in the lovely parlance of the Communists. Of course, their heavy-handed tactics achieved the exact opposite. President Lee was convincingly reelected, and pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan only grew as a result.

On Saturday, 15 million Taiwanese voters will go to the polls again, and even though we are looking at parliamentary elections this time (with 225 seats up for grabs) as well as city council and mayors' elections for Taiwan's two main cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung, the result will certainly have reverberations beyond Taiwan.

A parliamentary victory for the parties devoted to independence, which -- the above-mentioned fisticuffs notwithstanding -- include the DPP as well as the Independence Party, will make President Lee's relatively cautious "wait and be patient" policy towards China harder to pursue. And should the highly popular DPP mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui-bian, win reelection, he will have an excellent shot at the presidency in 2000. That's enough to make Taiwan watchers here break out into cold sweats.

What is particularly interesting is the fact that last year's municipal elections on Taiwan already have had an impact on relations across the Taiwan Strait. As DPP candidates in races for mayor and county executive came away with three-quarters of the vote, the result was a major wake-up call for both Washington and Beijing, forcing President Jiang Zemin into a reevaluation of mainland tactics (if not its ultimate goal of assimilating Taiwan on Beijing's terms).

So, for the moment at least, Beijing's merciless bullying of Taiwan and unrelenting hostility towards President Lee have given way to softer tones. It is, of course, also a fact that the communists can better afford a more indulgent attitude after President Clinton's public and obliging statement in Shanghai this summer that the United States does not support Taiwanese independence in any way, shape or form.

In fact, Beijing seems to entertain quite a new-found fondness for Mr. Lee, who now looks much like the lesser of two evils in their eyes. At least the Kuomintang government continues to operate with a "one China" policy, which holds that there is one China divided by two different political systems, much the way Germany used to be divided between a democratic West and a communist East. Eventually, this concept holds, the two can be united when their political systems converge under democratic rule. (This is a long-term project, needless to say.)

One clear manifestation of mainland China's new approach was the resumption of cross-Strait talks in October, the first time the two sides sat down at the negotiating table since 1993 when the PRC stomped out. But don't look for major tectonic shifts to take place during these talks. The meeting was described as "ice-melting," and both sides politely stated their views on what exactly "one China" means, unification, Taiwan's much desired membership in international organizations (fiercely opposed by Beijing), and institutionalization of the dialogue. Very Chinese indeed.

What was significant, though, was the players involved. The Taiwanese representative is a highly respected, close adviser to President Lee, and he was also able to exchange views with Jiang Zemin. Analysts in Taiwan describe it as the highest-level meeting since 1949, when the Kuomintang effected its strategic retreat from the mainland.

Does this mean that the voters of Taiwan will be more cautious when they cast their ballots Saturday? Given recent trends, that would probably be surprising. All of which may well create headaches in Washington and Beijing. The fact is, though, that their free political expression has already changed the dynamic of the relationship with mainland China. It is a force to be reckoned with -- and to be respected.

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