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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

OCTOBER 8, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 40

Shocks and Aftershocks
The political effects will be more enduring
By TODD CROWELL

Tempers are getting short in Taiwan. President Lee Teng-hui was shown on television trading words with one man at a disaster site. Vice President Lien Chan also endured the complaints and tirades of people made homeless in the massive earthquake that hit central Taiwan on Sept. 21. Prime Minister Vincent Siew, the Kuomintang (KMT) vice-presidential candidate in next year's presidential election, had to be hustled away from an angry crowd demanding faster relief action.

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Indonesia: Walking on a Tightrope
Unrest against the military revives the debate over civil and military power in Indonesia. But a bigger question is: Will disillusionment and division jeopardize the presidential poll?
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China: Right Down the Middle
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Taiwan: Shocks and Aftershocks
The political effects of the eartquake will be more enduring

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Korea: A Borderline Decision
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Myanmar: In Exile and Powerless
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Throughout the week Taiwan continued to experience hundreds of minor shakes and several big ones. One measured 6.8 on the Richter scale, a major tremor in its own right. The death toll climbed to more than 2,100, but there were also several dramatic rescues. One six-year-old boy was recovered after spending 87 hours in the rubble of a fallen apartment building in central Taiwan. Two brothers were pulled out of a collapsed building in Taipei after six days. They had passed the time playing cards.

But it is the political aftershocks that may be the most enduring, Anger mounted over the perceived slowness of the rescue efforts. Taipei did not get around to declaring an emergency until five days after the quake. South Korean teams were astonished that their Taiwanese equivalents did not possess long poles with lights and video cameras - standard modern search equipment in such situations. The Koreans had them, even though South Korea is far less prone to earthquakes (though collapsed buildings are not uncommon).

Being the ones in power, Kuomintang officials naturally will bear the brunt of the criticism or reap any kudos. The KMT's standard bearer in the March presidential polls, Lien Chan, took a visibly high profile role in directing rescue operations, and his wife personally donated $150,000. Opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian canceled a rally to conserve party funds for relief. Independent James Soong's expulsion from the KMT was postponed.

The KMT figures had the advantage of exposure, shown on television over and over again visiting the disaster sites in their official capacity. That's an opportunity not afforded the opposition candidates, now out of office. Before the quake, Lien lagged far behind in the public opinion polls. It was too soon to tell how the quake played politically as jammed telephone lines prevented any new political polling.

Knowing it must make amends, the central government announced it would compensate victims and families at the rate of $15,000 for each deceased person and smaller sums for the injured and those with demolished homes. The Central Bank offered loans for reconstruction. One survivor of the collapsed Sungshan Hotel was put up free of charge in the Hyatt Hotel, but he angrily rejected the city's offer to re-house him in the older Wanhwa district.

Attention soon turned to alleged shoddy construction work. Especially hard hit were relatively new apartment blocks and buildings erected during the recent boom. Kuo Nien-hsiung, secretary general of the Construction and Planning Administration, said he suspected that builders used cheap materials. A building contractor was arrested after it was found that all four of his buildings had collapsed in Yunlin County. Allegedly found inside supporting walls were empty plastic bottles instead of bricks.

No "peace dividend" seems likely to emerge from the disaster, despite China's quick offer of aid. Taipei turned down a mainland rescue team. "Taiwan still considers anything coming from the mainland to have too many political strings attached," says commentator Andrew Yang. A small rescue team from Hong Kong was abruptly sent home, supposedly because they arrived too late with the wrong equipment but possibly because the firemen had to await clearance from Beijing before leaving Hong Kong.

People complained bitterly that Beijing leaders constantly coupled words of condolence with denunciations of President Lee's "two states" remark inJuly and were trying to use the disaster to assert China's claim to sovereignty over the island. Foreign Minister Jason Hu even charged that Russian rescue workers were delayed 12 hours because of China's slowness in granting permission for them to fly through its airspace.

Taiwan authorities were miffed that the U.N. had sought clearance from Beijing first before offering its own assistance. And they thought it cheeky that the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. expressed gratitude on behalf of the Taiwan people for those countries that had sent assistance. But most nations set aside political one-upmanship to get on with the grim task of pulling people out of the rubble.

With reporting by Bradley Winterton/Taipei

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