No, Taiwan Isn't Going Back
The vote solidifies the island's identity, where many don't even consider themselves Chinese anymore.
Tuesday, March 21, 2000
By W. SCOTT THOMPSON
TAIPEI--My taxi driver said it all. "I planned to vote for James Soong until that [Beijing] press conference," and the early returns were making clear that he was not alone.
What happened Saturday in Taiwan was more than a "here's to you" waved at the Politburo in Beijing; it is the fulfillment of a long-term trend not just in votes but in identity-creation. More than four-fifths of the people here now identify themselves as Taiwanese, and of those more than half don't even consider themselves Chinese anymore. Put any group in a defensive position, watch them grow economically and politically, and they will soon form a "we group."
In this case, a native and talented former mayor, Chen Shui-bian, and his arch-feminist running mate, Annette Lu, have reached the commanding heights of power against one of the richest (and surely one of the most corrupt) political parties in the world, the Nationalists--also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT--which has ruled Taiwan since its defeat in the Chinese civil war.
But the vote was so close--independent candidate Soong garnered 37% of the vote to Chen's 39%--that it is impossible to ignore the role that Chinese intimidation played, most notably Premier Zhu Rongji's threats days before the election that this was Taiwan's "last chance," and that China was ready to shed blood to bring the island back into the fold.
But Taiwan isn't "going back"; there is almost no one on this island anymore who wants that. The sad thing is that China doesn't "get it."
This is not something to be smug about. My generation remembers with great pain how the United States 30 years ago didn't "get it" about Vietnam -- that fighting a nationalist, albeit also communist, revolution could only lead to disaster.
There is a problem when great countries don't "get" something, and that is that they're big enough for other countries--for their own usually self-serving reasons--to humor them, appease them and assure them that they are on the right course, even when everybody knows they are on a disastrous course. This is what has happened for the last generation, as most of the world has bowed to Beijing's pressure to isolate Taiwan, which is fully recognized now only in a handful of small capitals.
Taiwan didn't let that stop it. It has become the 19th-largest economy in the world and the No. 3 computer source. It has invested $40 billion in the Chinese mainland. Most of all, it has an identity that is plain for all to see, which gets clearer and prouder with each shove and threat from the mainland.
One wonders if European and other democracies still can see it Beijing's way after the old Chinese Politburo gave it all away; that is to say, made clear that in a world of "new sovereignty" where international relations is increasingly about human rights, democracy and free trade, their concern is the negation of these.
The fact that power could shift peacefully, if raucously, from the KMT to a "people's party" that arose out of opposition to oppression closes the books on the question of whether Taiwan is now fully qualified in the democratic league. As the results came in, no one on Taipei's streets could doubt the thrill and enthusiasm.
We are assured on many fronts that, happily, China lacks the amphibious and other assault capabilities that could ensure success of an invasion.
Yet, the history of the People's Liberation Army is one of disguise and deception. What we now know is that Beijing is obsessed with the Taiwan issue. The obsession is not fading with the aging of the old Politburo leaders, nor yet with the growing evidence of Taiwanese democratic enthusiasm (a stunning 88% of the population turned out to vote). So there is good reason to be concerned.
We have before us in China what looks like a petulant child striking out in every direction when it doesn't and can't get what it wants. And in behaving irrationally, China sets in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more it threatens, the more Taiwan asserts its autonomy and, deep-down, its desire for independence. Beijing even affects the guarantors similarly. American public opinion has shifted in favor of Taiwan, as seen in the House vote to enhance the arms supply package.
The painful truth now, however, is that Washington will have to strengthen Taiwan's forces far more than envisaged even a few months ago, to make it capable of deterring any surprise.
It reminds one of Talleyrand, who, upon hearing of Napoleon's murder of the Duke of Enghien, commented, "It was worse than a crime, it was a blunder."
In one of the most ironic interventions in recent decades, Beijing in its obsession to control Taiwan did indeed choose its president.
W. Scott Thompson Is the Director of the Southeast Asian Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University