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Chen fights for his political life in Taiwan amid a recall threat

Asian Wall Street Journal

November 10, 2000

By Erik Guyot. Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The political brinkmanship between President Chen Shui-bian and opposition lawmakers threatening to oust him in a recall vote has dashed once-high hopes on the island for a thaw in relations with mainland China.

The infighting has forced the president into a fight for his political life and seriously eroded his clout in efforts to reduce tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

"I don't think Chen can do much," said Parris Chang, a legislator in Mr. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party who has been influential in formulating the party's foreign policy.

When Mr. Chen took office in May after ending 55 years of rule by the Kuomintang, many believed he had a good shot at restarting official talks with mainland China, which Beijing broke off last year. China -- which considers Taiwan a renegade province and insists it must eventually unite with the mainland -- has threatened war if the island declares independence.

Mr. Chen, who during his election campaign distanced himself from the DPP's pro-independence stance, was seen as someone who could make concessions to Beijing and remain insulated from accusations that he was giving away too much.

But Taiwan's government hasn't been able to respond to new, more moderate language from Beijing. In August, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen told visiting Taiwan reporters that the country's "one China" principle included the mainland and Taiwan -- implying that the two are equal negotiating partners for an eventual reunification. The comments were a subtle but significant change to Beijing's previous stance that "one China" meant only that Taiwan must accept its role as part of the communist People's Republic of China.

"It was seen as a loosening of Beijing's position," said Alexander Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taipei. "Now, Taiwan is under pressure to react to this new statement, but so far the government hasn't acted."

Not everyone sees Mr. Qian's statement as a goodwill gesture. Mr. Parris Chang of the DPP said the Chinese premier's words are propaganda aimed at swaying Taiwan public opinion. "China continues to maintain a distinction between what they say to Taiwan and what they say to an international audience," said Mr. Chang. He said the litmus test of Beijing's sincerity is if the government accedes to Taiwan's request for a separate seat in the United Nations General Assembly, a move that Beijing has fought for years.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's domestic scene is likely to remain riven between President Chen and his two main rivals, Lien Chan and James Soong. Each of the three is widely viewed as strong-willed but lacking the combination of popularity and legislative votes to unite the island.

The opposition KMT holds 115 seats in the 220-member legislature, but its chairman, Mr. Lien, came in a distant third in the March presidential elections. In contrast, the charismatic Mr. Soong, who finished a close second in the presidential elections, heads a party with only 17 seats in the legislature.

On Saturday, Messrs. Lien and Soong will meet with other opposition leaders to discuss strategy for a possible recall. But observers note that the opposition coalition is a tenuous one. The two former rivals formed a united front against the president less than two weeks ago. What brought them together was a snub by Mr. Chen in which the president told Mr. Lien, in a televised meeting, that he'd "consider" the KMT's position not to scrap a controversial, partially completed nuclear power plant. Minutes after the meeting, Mr. Chen's administration announced it would shelve the project.

Despite public sympathy for Mr. Lien, it is doubtful the KMT can generate enough public support for a recall. A public opinion poll earlier this week, conducted by television station TVBS, indicated that 65% of respondents opposed a recall.

What's more, the poll showed that the embattled president -- who under Taiwan law cannot run following a recall -- would receive 40% of votes cast if he could run again. Mr. Soong would get 32% of the vote and Mr. Lien only 12%, according to the poll. Mr. Chen's popularity has rebounded slightly following a humble apology on Sunday to Mr. Lien, which was broadcast on television. The president bowed to his audience, saying he was "a new kid on the block" and had much to learn "in order to become a mature leader."

While Taiwan's political jockeying is likely to continue, Mr. Huang said he worries there may be at most an 18-month window of opportunity for Taiwan and China to talk before Beijing is tied up with its own internal politics leading up to the 2002 communist party congress.

The analyst said hard-liners in China's military who are more inclined to use force can now argue, "We acted, but they did not respond."