Newsweek

Gentlemen, start your engines

May 22nd, 2007

By Jonathan Adams, Newsweek International


The moderate Frank Hsieh's clinching of the pro-independence party's presidential nomination spells a close race in 2008 -- and a likely thaw in cross-strait relations

May 22, 2007 -- In January 2006, Frank Hsieh stepped down from the premiership after a disappointing year. He'd taken office with a new, conciliatory approach -- both toward China, Taiwan's rival across the Strait, and to the domestic Kuomintang-led opposition. But his outstretched hand was met with a cold shoulder: Beijing passed its "Anti-Secession Law" formalizing its threat to use military force against Taiwan, and the opposition continued to block the ruling party's agenda at every turn. A disillusioned Hsieh left the country to nurse his wounds abroad. Some observers thought his political career was finished.

Less than a year and a half later, Hsieh has become the pro-independence party's candidate in the closely watched 2008 presidential race -- and quite possibly, the next leader of Taiwan. It's a dramatic change of fortunes for the mild-mannered Hsieh – a lawyer educated in Taiwan and Japan’s Kyoto University. His win last week in the Democratic Progressive Party primary means he’ll face off against the man who, until recently, was seen as shoo-in for the presidency: the Kuomintang's equally gentle Ma Ying-jeou.

With the race now underway and nine months to go, observers say the vote is up for grabs -- and some give the DPP an edge. But regardless of who wins, hopes are already high for a thaw in cross-strait relations, as both Ma and Hsieh are moderate centrists who back closer economic links with the mainland. Their softer rhetoric contrasts with Chen Shui-bian who constantly irritates Beijing with his brash trumpeting of the island's de facto independence.

More than anything, Hsieh, 60, is known for his flexibility and strong work ethic -- qualities that date back to his days as a champion gymnast in his youth. His defense of pro-democracy activists in a famous 1980 trial gives him credibility with the Democratic Progressive Party's true believers. A few years after that, his dogged legal work was instrumental in revealing ties between the KMT and the gangsters who murdered author Henry Liu, a vocal critic of the KMT, in California.

"Hsieh took the lead and proved to be a good advisor and courageous and effective lawyer,” says Jerome Cohen, who represented Liu’s widow in legal proceedings in Taiwan and is now a professor of Chinese law at New York University. And Hsieh was the party's vice presidential candidate in the nation's first free presidential election in 1996 -- running alongside a staunchly pro-independence figure.

But he also earned a reputation as a competent, pragmatic administrator during his time as mayor of the port city of Kaohsiung from 1998 to 2005. Hsieh is credited with giving the city a much-needed makeover, infusing it with culture and cleaning its polluted industrial waterfront (Kaohsiung’s once notoriously dirty Love River is now lined with outdoor cafes and boasts brightly-lit tour boats). He pushed for cross-strait shipping links then to revive Kaohsiung’s flagging port business, and even tried to visit the mainland to discuss the issue – only to see his proposal nixed by Chen's government.

Hsieh’s proven commitment to Taiwan’s democracy and push for warmer economic ties with China make him a formidable candidate. That stance aligns him closely with the island's average voter, who favors more commerce with China, but wants to keep a political distance. Meanwhile, the more China-friendly Ma's star has dimmed amid charges he misused funds as Taipei mayor, criticisms about his weak leadership of the opposition, and concerns that he doesn't sufficiently embrace rising Taiwanese identity – a deeply emotional issue for many voters. “Many people think Ma can’t win the election,” said one KMT insider. “His outlook is different from many people – they think they’re Taiwanese, but Ma thinks he’s Chinese.” So far, Ma’s efforts to woo the powerful legislative speaker Wang Jyn-ping as his running mate have been rebuffed -- a sign of the current skepticism of Ma, even within his own party.

If Ma’s woes continue, some observers now give Hsieh’s party the advantage. “It looks good for them right now,” said Bruce Jacobs, an expert in Taiwan politics at Monash University in Australia. As far as cross-strait relations go, there may not be much difference between the two men. Both would bring a softer, more measured tone to the presidency. Beijing would prefer a Ma presidency, thanks to historical -- and now warming -- ties between the Chinese Communist Party and KMT. And a cross-strait political settlement is a possibility under Ma, while probably out of Hsieh’s reach. But even if Hsieh takes power, analysts say Beijing could seek a fresh start -- in the same way they were quick to engage Japan’s Shinzo Abe after the more outspoken Junichiro Koizumi left the scene.

That would be welcome news for investors, businesspeople and many average Taiwanese, who have been eagerly awaiting progress on a raft of issues expected to help revive the island's anemic economy. Those include a long-awaited agreement on allowing more Chinese tourists to visit Taiwan; regular cross-strait cargo and passenger flights; relaxation on limits to Taiwanese firms' China-bound investment; and allowing Taiwanese banks to do retail business in the high-potential mainland banking market.

Ma is a stronger advocate of such economic opening, but analysts say Hsieh would also make progress, albeit more slowly. Sophia Cheng, head of Taiwan research at investment bank Merrill Lynch, says Hsieh’s primary win, in which he trounced two hardline pro-independence candidates, was a clear vote for moderation. “The DPP already tested what the majority voter wants – and they want economic development more than independence,” said Cheng, who predicts a DPP victory by a hair next year.

Of course, given the volatile nature of cross-strait relations, nothing is a given. To be sure, Hsieh and Chen’s styles are very different, and Hsieh is seen as a stronger backer of economic opening. But in substance, their stances on the island’s sovereignty are the same: Both insist on Taiwan's democratic autonomy and back further constitutional revision, which Beijing sees as a “timeline for independence.” Some think Hsieh's DPP might back a boycott of the Beijing Olympics next summer to win political points domestically -- a move that could sharply raise cross-strait tensions. And in China, anxieties are mounting that Chen may use the last year of his term (he will step down from office in late May 2008) to push a bold move toward full independence. “Beijing considers the next year to be a ‘high-risk period’ said Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing. “They have to prepare for the worst.”

But if China and Taiwan can navigate those choppy waters, it looks like smoother sailing come mid-2008 – whether it’s Hsieh or Ma at the helm.