New York Times

Getting Real in the Other China

New York, Sunday, July 18, 1999

By Seth Faison

Here's a riddle: How do you make a country richer and more democratic and at the same time outmaneuver a huge, luggish neighbor that wants to "reunify" with you?

Here's an answer (and Beijing won't like this): Ask the President of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui. Last week, Lee again upset the apple cart of international opinion when he declared that Taiwan would no longer adhere to the principle that the Chinese mainland and it were part of the same country. This may sound silly to an outsider, since the Chinese civil war ended exactly 50 years ago, but ever since then Taipei and Beijing have been bickering over the use of the name China.

Lee, 76, is a master politician who has repeatedly defied, and surpassed, the expectations of him. A shrewd strategist with an eye on the voter, he has presided over a remarkable flourishing of democracy and economic growth while holding on to power for nearly 12 years, at the same time keeping his enormous Chinese neighbor at bay.

Perhaps most impressive is the way Lee has kept his Nationalist Party, once dominated by thugs, at the top of Taiwan's political heap. And he has done that while steadily cutting away at the party's original premise: that it represents all of China. Instead he has focused on the governing of Taiwan alone.

How has he done it? Lee likes to talk about his vision of democracy, and his conviction as the first native-born President of Taiwan that his country needs an identity separate from China. His greatest skill may be keeping his rivals off balance with sly tactical maneuvering, and by appealing to voters.

Yet a central element of Lee's success is often overlooked: His moves point toward more democracy and self-determination, two concepts that have proved stunningly popular this century, at least with voters. Though he plays a risky game with China, his strategy is based on political ideas far more resilient than all the inertia that favors the status quo.

Chiang Kai-shek, the vanquished leader of the Nationalist Party who retreated to Taiwan in 1949, refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Government in mainland China. So did the United States until 1972. When President Nixon traveled to Beijing that year, his main obstacle was the Taiwan question. So the "one China" policy was born, allowing Washington, Beijing and Taipei to agree to the fiction that there was only one China and that its two halves would reunify eventually. The beauty of this lie was that it allowed both sides to get around the truth -- that China has no control over its highly successful ideological rival. This is a truth that makes the Chinese hopping mad and liable to do dangerous and unpredictable things.

By dropping the one-China stance last week, Lee has taken another step toward acknowledging that messy truth and thereby upsetting the delicate arrangement that made his country's prosperity possible.

Although he has not actually declared independence, or changed Taiwan's formal name from the Republic of China, he is insisting that Taiwan be considered its own state. The United States, Taiwan's leading patron, expressed dismay at Lee's action and reaffirmed its support for one China led by Beijing.

Lee's assertions may sound dangerous in the face of China's threats to take military action toward reunification if peaceful means fail. China responded to Lee in its state-run media last week, calling him a "troublemaker." How it reacts over the coming months, especially to Taiwan's presidential elections next March, is anyone's guess.

Though many people fret at China's rumbling, even more seem to be embracing the way Lee is calling Taiwan its own country, which, after all, has been a reality for 50 years. "A lot of people in Taiwan are very happy to hear their President finally say the truth," said Yang Kai-huang, a political science professor at Soochow University in Taipei. Professor Yang and other political analysts see other motives behind the move. They see Lee trying to undercut James Soong, a long-time ally Lee dropped from his top circle two years ago because he was too popular and independent minded. Soong announced his candidacy for President on an independent line Friday.

There is an obvious merit in Lee's refashioning of the Nationalist Party line toward China that is closer to reality. Many Chinese grow up steeped in a way of thinking that teaches that respect for authority is more important than honesty. Chinese culture does not have a monopoly on political hypocrisy, of course, but it seems to tolerate a mind-boggling degree of saying one thing while doing another.

To some Chinese, that subtlety need not change. "I am a man. Do I need to say it out loud?" asked Eric Wang, a Taiwanese businessman who runs a plastics business in mainland China.

Yet in Taiwan, life has changed so much since the one-China formula, becoming so open and modern minded, that many others object to an old policy that they see as so badly out of date as to be offensive. Lee's latest moves, in his final year in office, may be geared toward his legacy. History will not be uniformly kind to him.

Among his ill-considered actions is offering the United Nations $1 billion only if it would let Taiwan join. (The United Nations said no.) A book recently published under Lee's name made the wacky suggestion that China be split into seven autonomous regions, including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Yet among Lee's big achievements is ushering in a presidential election in 1996, arguably the first time a Chinese society had freely elected a leader. Political analysts detailed how Lee appeared to manipulate public opinion in a risky way, deliberately angering China so much that it held military exercises off the coast of Taiwan just before the election, which rallied voters to Lee's side and gave him a decisive victory.

Lee came out looking like a master. But his legacy will not be based only on his electoral victory; there is also the fact that a genuine presidential election was held at all.