When Taiwan speaks, the world listens
By Helle Bering
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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
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.