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November 30, 2000

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From Our Correspondent: The Shadow of 2-2-8
In Taiwan's presidential campaign, the ruling Kuomintang may lose
By ALEJANDRO REYES

February 28, 2000
Web posted at 6:10 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:10 a.m. EST


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2-2-8. In Taiwan, the numbers immediately evoke memories of what some call the Taiwanese holocaust. In Taipei on Feb. 27, 1947, officials of the Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau and lawmen attacked a woman street hawker illegally selling cigarettes. In the melée, police fired shots and a bystander was killed. The next day, furious protesters marched on the office of the governor, appointed by the Nanking-based Kuomintang government led by Chiang Kai-shek after the surrender of Japan, Taiwan's colonial ruler, ended World War II. More gunfire, and several demonstrators were left dead or wounded. That incident ignited island-wide protests for political reform. The KMT administration declared martial law and launched a bloody military crackdown. Up to 28,000 Taiwanese, including many middle-class urban intellectuals, were slaughtered.

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For Taiwanese, the bitterness of the 2-2-8 massacre lingers. That in part explains the mistrust many of them today have toward both mainland China and mainlanders in the KMT. It fuels pro-independence sentiment among Taiwan citizens, the vast majority local-born. Martial law lasted until 1987. After four decades of brutal authoritarian rule, the Nationalists began loosening their grip. On the death of Chiang Kai-shek's son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, in 1988, Lee Teng-hui, an academic, took control of the party and the presidency and became the island's first native-born leader. That was a major turning point. In 1995, a 2-2-8 monument was unveiled in downtown Taipei, but the commemorative plaque was left blank for two years because of a controversy over the proposed inscription. Families of victims rejected the original text, claiming it tried to whitewash 2-2-8 by failing to name Chiang Kai-shek as responsible for the action. Eventually, the strongman's name was included.

Today, the incident's 53rd anniversary, is Peace Memorial Day, now an annual public holiday in Taiwan. At monuments in cities around the island and at the Taipei 2-2-8 Memorial Museum, there are ceremonies to observe the occasion. But the candidates in the March 18 presidential election will hardly pause from their non-stop campaigning. Make no mistake, the specter of 2-2-8 and the Taiwan-mainland divide loom large. Origins count for a lot in the island's boisterous politics. In Yunlin county over the weekend, independent contender James Soong Chu-yu, who was born in Hunan province, tried to play down the fact. "When I moved to Taiwan, DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) candidate Chen Shui-bian was not even born yet," Soong argued. "I've eaten more Taiwan rice and drunk more Taiwan water than Chen has." Soong recalled that his KMT opponent Lien Chan, Lee's vice president, was also born in the mainland (in Xian, but to a Taiwanese family from Tainan), so "there's no reason I should be the only candidate with an ethnic handicap."

The question of Taiwan identity is inextricably linked to the island's relationship to mainland China. Beijing has made it clear that it would not like to see pro-independence candidate Chen win. "If he is elected, the cross-strait relationship will not improve," State Council official Zhang Mingqing said last week in an interview with a Japanese television station. "If one of the others is elected, the situation could change." Consider those comments and the White Paper on Taiwan released last week by the mainland. In the document, Beijing warned that it would use force if Taipei indefinitely refused to discuss reunification. Clearly, the move highlights China's concern. Beijing distrusts Lee as a duplicitous separatist and worries that the divisions within the KMT could lead to a Chen victory. This weekend, Lee was in Kaohsiung stumping for Lien. He warned voters to choose the right candidate, not the "rotten apple" (Soong, who was expelled from the KMT) or the one that had yet to ripen (Chen). But his most caustic remarks were reserved for Beijing. "Communist China says it is going to use force if we don't talk with them," he told businessmen in the southern port city. "China's like a hooligan. Taiwan-China ties are special state-to-state relations. It's the most basic condition. Only under this fundamental framework can we talk."

Lee is known to have a soft spot for Chen and is rumored to be secretly supporting the former Taipei mayor, while publicly fulfilling his party duty and campaigning for Lien. The president prefers to promote what he calls the "new Taiwanese" identity, rather than push his own party's official goal of reunification. The three main candidates are practically in a dead heat, with the vice president slightly trailing Chen and Soong. About a quarter of the electorate remains undecided. Lien, a wooden campaigner who lacks Lee's charisma, is maneuvering a treacherous line between riding the president's coattails and distancing himself from the retiring leader. The talk is that, should Lien fail to improve his numbers, Lee and the pro-Lee faction of the KMT will switch their support to Chen -- anything to keep mainland-born Soong, once the president's protégé but now his nemesis, off the throne.

One thing is certain, though: Whoever wins, Taiwan politics will enter the post-Lee Teng-hui era, as a new generation takes over. The next president will not enjoy the same stature or Teflon siding that has kept the highly controversial Lee popular. Even if Lien makes it, indications are that he would not allow Lee to retain the KMT chairmanship for long.

So far, the conventional wisdom has been that, come polling day, undecided voters -- egged on by China's threats -- will stick with the KMT. The party's superior grassroots network and bulging coffers are supposed to be its saving grace. But in the last weeks of the campaign, many are increasingly skeptical. A government official last week told me that he reckoned the KMT just might lose. People are willing to take the leap, he said. That may not be a bad thing, he hastened to add. As happened with the Liberal Democrats in Japan, he explained, the party may need time out of office to regroup, refocus and renew itself -- before staging a comeback.

A humiliating public rebuke of the Nationalists would be a major step forward for Taiwan's still-young democracy and for Taiwanese. If it were to happen, perhaps then the ghosts of 2-2-8 can be put to rest and the island's pluralist political system can begin to mature beyond the electorate's fixation with ethnic identity. For cross-strait relations, however, it would plainly mean a widening of the gulf between Beijing and Taipei -- and a possible rise in tensions.

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