The Presidential elections of 18 March 2000 are providing the people in Taiwan with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of history of their country. The island has been in international limbo since Japan gave up sovereignty over its colony after the end of World War II.
While virtually all other nations in Asia and Africa gained independence and international recognition, Taiwan was occupied by the losing side of the Chinese Civil War. Its people were subjected to some 38 years of martial law by the Chinese Nationalists who came over with Chiang Kai-shek, and were ruled by a government which kept up the pretense that it was going to "recover" China.
While in the 1980s and 1990s, the Taiwanese were able to transform the nation into a full-fledged democratic market economy, the political isolation and the second-class diplomatic status remained. While the Kuomintang under Lee Teng-hui did play a role in the democratic transition, and attempted to gain international breathing space, it remained stuck in the "one China" and "eventual reunification" fiction of its repressive predecessor.
A victory of Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party _ the party of the "tangwai" who set the island's democratization process in motion in the early 1980s _ will mean an end to the entrenched position the Kuomintang has held for the past 54+ years. It will be the first-ever transition of power to an opposition party in the history of the island, and will mean a further step towards full democracy, with full accountability and checks and balances in the political system on the island. The "black-gold" connection with the criminal underworld and "money politics" will be relegated to the past.
A victory for Mr. Chen will also mean a new slate in the discussion on Taiwan's future. The new DPP government will not have the historical burden of having been involved in the Chinese Civil War. It will be able to speak on behalf of the Taiwanese people in a way the Kuomintang never could.
China may threaten Taiwan for some time to come _ especially if Mr. Chen wins _ but his election would provide the world the best chance for a resolution of the decades-old conflict. The US Administration, and other Western nations, should thus prepare themselves for a change of government in Taipei. A transition of power from a ruling party to an opposition party is often difficult enough under "normal" circumstances, let alone under the dark cloud of the China threats.
The society and political system on the island will never be quite the same. Taiwan will finally be able to be itself. It will be able to discover its own identity, history, and even geography. Finally, Taiwan can be Taiwan.
As the date of Taiwan's second democratic presidential election approaches, the level of belligerence of China's threats against Taiwan is increasing. In January 2000, a phalanx of Chinese government officials issued statements that Taiwan's continued movement towards freedom and independence amounted to "playing with fire" and would have "unimaginable consequences."
During February, the shrillness of the statements increased further, rising to a crescendo in the February 21st "White Paper", in which China threatened that "foot-dragging" and refusal to move towards "unification" would lead China to go to war (see article "White Paper, Dark Threats" on page 5).
Of course, these war threats come in the middle of an election campaign in which all candidates have bent over backwards to make statements which are friendly and even accommodating to China. It should thus be clear to any observer that it is China that is provocative.
The people of Taiwan should not let themselves be intimidated. This election is the opportunity for Taiwan to show China _ and the rest of the world _ that Taiwan is ready for full democracy and for full membership in the international community.
In a sense, the people of Taiwan are being intimidated from three sides: the primary and most obvious threat is of course from the side of China. Full democracy means that the people of Taiwan can elect their president without any outside interference or threat from China.
However, the intimidation comes also from two other directions: from inside Taiwan itself and from some quarters in the United States.
In Taiwan itself, the ruling Kuomintang and even more so the people associated with the New Party and independent candidate James Soong, have long employed the old and worn-out scare-tactic that "independence means that China will attack." Such statements were designed to protect the powerbase of the mainlanders in the government, and to prevent the DPP from gaining broader support, but of course played into the cards of the Chinese Communists on the mainland.
Such mindless attacks on this issue against the DPP and its candidate Chen Shui-bian begs the question: "if they don't want to be independent, on whom do they want to be dependent?"
Another type of intimidation comes from those in the United States who argue that Taiwan should be prevented to move further in the direction of independence, or else the United States would withdraw its protection of the island as laid down in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. See the statements by Mr. Bradley, as quoted on page 9.
Full democracy means that the people of Taiwan should elect their president on the basis of the policies and programs proposed by the candidates, and not on the basis of the amount of money, either given during the years when the candidate was Governor of Taiwan, or given by the richest party on earth to elect its candidate.
Full democracy means that the people of Taiwan should measure up the candidates, and see if they can be trusted to protect the interests of Taiwan, and not sell-out the island to China.
While Mr. James Soong has said that the "ROC" has its own sovereignty, he is clearly the favorite of the repressive rulers in Beijing. This would not bode well for Taiwan interests.
Mr. Lien Chan carries with him the burden of the Kuomintang's decades-old conflict with China. Officially, he adheres to the KMT's present policies, but has not fully embraced President Lee's "state-to-state" position. Can he be trusted to insist on respect for Taiwan interests?
According to reports in Taiwan, Mr. Lien has mainly surrounded himself with old-style mainlanders. This is in contrast to President Lee Teng-hui, who had gradually increased the presence of native Taiwanese in the government. Mr. Lien must thus be expected to whittle away at Mr. Lee's accomplishments.
The third candidate, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian, is the only one who has a solid foundation in Taiwan itself. He is a lawyer, who at an early stage associated himself with the budding "tangwai" opposition in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At great personal risk _ and cost he stood at the cradle of Taiwan's incredible transition from a repressive dictatorship under the Kuomintang to a free and open democracy at present. Mr. Chen has his roots in Taiwan, he can be trusted to stand up for Taiwan.
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