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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Behind the Smiles, Angst

Can the new premier boost the ruling party?

By Alejandro Reyes and Laurence Eyton / Taipei

THE LAST TIME TAIWAN'S ruling Kuo-mintang held a party congress, which was four years ago, the occasion was marred by the walkout of a handful of the KMT's "young Turks." Suspicious of party chairman and Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's commitment to reunification with China and disgusted by the rise of corruption, the rebels went on to launch the breakaway New Party. Last week, the Nationalists gathered for the party's 15th congress. Not surprisingly, Lee and his lieutenants worked overtime to stress solidarity. With legislative polls scheduled for next year, KMT leaders are hoping that by putting on a unified front they can stem their party's eroding popularity.

That may prove an impossible task. Party chiefs acknowledge that over the years the KMT has lost ground as Taiwan opened up its political system. "The KMT has changed from a dominant party to a competitive one," secretary-general Wu Poh-hsiung concedes. Public dissatisfaction has risen with the perception that the government has been unable to tackle, in particular, rising crime. The criticism has even eaten into the personal popularity of the president who, in March last year, was overwhelmingly voted back into office as Taiwan's first directly elected leader.

Lee is now working hard to halt the KMT's decline. He used the congress to bring in a new premier. Vincent Siew Wan-chang, 58, is a widely respected technocrat with extensive experience in handling economic policy. His trademark broad grin and press-friendly attitude have earned him the nickname "Smiling Siew."

He replaces Lien Chan, 61, a patrician professor-turned-politician who was elected vice president last year as Lee's running mate. Lien vowed to step down as premier once planned constitutional changes were put through the legislature. The controversial reforms to abolish the provincial tier of government and to bolster the president's powers were passed recently. Faced with mounting criticism over crime, Lien stepped down. The stage-managed move had been expected anyway. Siew has been waiting in the wings for some time. Prior to becoming a legislator, he served as chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council. Lien, still vice president, will concentrate on a presidential run in 2000, with Lee's backing.

Siew may be able to do no more than put a smiling face on the party's decline. While Lee is now firmly in control of the mainstream, divisions have not been easy to paper over. Taiwan Governor James Soong Chu-yu, 55, has emerged as a rising star and rival to Lien for the presidency. Objecting to Lee's constitutional overhaul, he decided to boycott the congress. Lee refused to put him up for a party vice chairmanship but Soong surprisingly pipped Siew to top the central committe vote. Lee won his show of unity at the congress. On the second day, he was re-elected party chairman in an uncontested poll, taking 93% of the delegate vote.

Siew will be judged on how well he manages the economy and the fight against crime, as well as mainland relations. Since the presidential poll last year, there have been signs of improvement in China-Taiwan ties. Limited cross-strait shipping services started in April have recently been expanded, and both sides cooperated over the return of a Taiwan man who had hijacked a plane to China. Wu revealed that the Chinese Communist Party had sent a congratulatory message to the KMT over the congress, though there was no personal missive from Chinese leader Jiang Zemin to Lee, as there had been in 1993.

As it is, no breakthroughs are likely until after the Communist Party's own congress in mid-September. Beijing has kept to its hard line. "Relations will improve only when Taiwan authorities stop activities splitting the motherland," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang. With a thin majority in the legislature, the KMT may have to seek accommodation with its rivals to govern effectively. Mutual loathing between the KMT and the New Party leaves only the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party as a potential coalition partner. Such a move would naturally spark alarm in Beijing.

China has more pressing concerns. Lee leaves soon on a trip to central America, and Taipei has relaunched efforts to win a U.N. seat. Taiwan has suffered setbacks too. Last week, Caribbean island nation St. Lucia decided to switch recognition to Beijing. Ironically, as China fights to deny Lee diplomatic victories he can use to boost his party's sagging popularity at home, Beijing may effectively be edging a weakened KMT into a political alliance that would make rapprochement with the mainland even more difficult to achieve.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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