Taiwan's Election, China's Future
February 23, 2000
By Timothy Garton Ash
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The light from thousands of red and yellow paper lanterns caught the eyes of porcelain dragons at the Lungshan Temple as people crowded a few days ago to burn "golden money," at 30 cents a bundle, in a tall ornamental furnace. Some asked for blessings in the new year from Kuanyin, the goddess of mercy; others bowed to the red-faced statue of a long-ago Chinese general, known as the god Kuan Kung.
Prayers at the temple were for peace and safety, but in Beijing, today's red-faced generals are talking of war. As Taiwan begins a campaign to elect a new president, China's state council has issued an official white paper threatening the use of force if Taiwan is not prepared to enter negotiations about "reunification." And the Taiwan candidate causing the greatest worry in Beijing is an opposition leader, Chen Shui-bian.
At an election rally I attended in a town just outside Taipei, Mr. Chen began his speech with themes that would be entirely familiar to any Western voter: welfare, education, housing, transport. He hardly mentioned relations with mainland China. But much of his support comes from forces Beijing is not used to dealing with -- upstart opponents of the Kuomintang party that has ruled Taiwan since being forced into exile there by the Communists in 1948.
These people, hungry for democracy and a chance to share in their own government, may be political enemies of Beijing's enemies, but they are not likely to be Beijing's friends. At the rally, I saw Mr. Chen's vice-presidential candidate appealing with unabashed populism to Taiwanese resentment of "the mainlanders" -- a reference to the Kuomintang, but hardly a comfort to the new mainlanders now looking east.
The last time the people of Taiwan went to the polls to elect a president, in 1996, the Chinese fired missiles over the straits that separate Taiwan from the mainland, and the United States sent warships in response. For a moment, it felt like a new Cuban missile crisis in the Far East.
This time around, a high-level United States delegation has been in Beijing, mainly to restore relations after NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, but also to try to ensure that nothing like the saber-rattling of 1996 happens again. Yet now something very similar does seem to be happening, as the big brother across the strait shamelessly tries to intimidate Taiwan.
In an interview with the Washington Post published before the Chinese white paper was issued, the presidential candidate of Taiwan's Kuomintang, Lien Chan, warned of the danger of "foreign invasion" if he was not elected. The implication was that a vote in his favor would keep Red China happy -- an odd promise at first glance. The Kuomintang, after all, is the Communists' old enemy from the chinese civil war. This was the party that claimed, while ruling Taiwan in a brutal dictatorship, to be the one true China and kept up the pretense, with American protection, for decades.
Yet all the while Taiwan was developing its own, separate identity, at least superficially on a thoroughly American model. And it is that evolution, rather than the old stalemate with the nationalists, that makes the Communists really angry. What made China furiously denounce Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, last summer was his statement that relations between Taiwan and China are "special state-to-state relations," implying that Taiwan was a separate state.
Now Mr. Lien, Mr. Lee's chosen successor, is playing down the state-to-state formula. "We won't rock the boat," he told me in his Washington English. And while Beijing's favorite candidate in Taiwan's election is James Soong, who left the Kuomintang in order to stand as an independent, clearly it would prefer Mr. Lien to Chen Shui-bian.
It is Mr. Chen who has the greatest potential to advance the consolidation of democracy in Taiwan. As democratic institutions have grown since the end of martial law in 1987, Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, too, has grown.
It is one of those parties you encounter in countries that have emerged from long dictatorships -- one in which every second member seems to have been a political prisoner under the old, repressive regime. At a reception, I met a legislator who had served 11 years in prison. A former party chairman who did 25 years is called "Taiwan's Mandela." Chen Shui-bian, who was a defense lawyer for opposition activists, served eight months on a trumped-up charge.
Most of these opposition leaders are deeply committed to democracy. But many are also Taiwanese nationalists, anxious to realize the aspirations of the native Taiwanese majority so long frustrated by the mainlanders who elbowed them aside in 1948. In their hearts, they would probably like full independence for Taiwan, as a separate, internationally recognized, fully sovereign state. Both commitments -- to full-blooded democracy and to a separate Taiwan -- make them especially hateful to Beijing.
In his proclaimed China policy, Mr. Chen is almost as conciliatory and pragmatic as his rivals. His supporters argue to me that China will actually find it easier to deal with the "hard-liner" Chen -- just as they found Richard Nixon easier to work with than the Democrats. Only a man with Mr. Chen's Taiwanese nationalist credentials, they say, can make the necessary concessions to China without fear of being accused of treachery. Perhaps, but Beijing doesn't seem to see it that way.
The Chinese threat could lead wavering Taiwan voters to play safe and vote once again for the Kuomintang, or for the China-friendly Mr. Soong. But such obvious bullying could also inflame Taiwanese sentiments against the mainland and the mainlanders, winning support for Mr. Chen.
When the shouting's over, everyone knows that, realistically, Taiwan's future for a long time to come will be neither unification with the mainland nor full acknowledgment of itself as an independent nation, but rather to continue with what Mr. Chen calls a "third way." Yet certainly a change of party at the top would help to dismantle the remaining undemocratic vestiges of the Kuomintang's one-party state.
Even if this meant choppier relations with Beijing in the short term, it would be good for the world, too, in the long term. With all its faults, Taiwan is already something remarkable: the first democracy in 5,000 years of Chinese history. If it goes well, it will be a small positive example to the larger nation that constitutes one fifth of humankind.
Timothy Garton Ash, a fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, is the author, most recently, of "History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990's."