27, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 12
a dramatic election, voters sweep out the Kuomintang and choose a leader
who talks openly of separatism. How will Beijing react?
By TERRY MCCARTHY Taipei
The future won over the past and hope overcame fear in Taiwan as voters
chose opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian last Saturday to be their next
President. Chen, 49, overturned 55 years of Kuomintang (KMT) rule on the
island while defying angry rhetoric from Beijing that threatened war if
he was elected. After the results were announced, the streets of Taipei
exploded into a noisy sea of firecrackers, klaxons and his party's green
flags, as the enormity of Chen's victory began to sink in. Only 14 years
ago Chen was languishing in jail for libeling a high-ranking KMT member;
now he has won the highest office in the land. "This is the greatest victory
of Taiwan's democracy movement," Chen told Time. "This moment is truly
Hartung for TIME
The Chen family celebrates on election night
race was tight, with Chen winning 39% of the vote. His closest rival,
James Soong, took nearly 37%, while the KMT candidate Lien
Chan limped in with just a 23% showing. Tallied by computer, the results
were known less than four hours after the polls closed, unleashing a torrent
of emotions among Chen supporters. "I am overwhelmed by the victory,"
said Hsiao Li-hsin, a 30-year-old legislative assistant standing with
his girlfriend in the crowd outside Chen's party headquarters. "I'm going
to stay here all night and all tomorrow morning." Police closed the streets
to traffic for several blocks around the impromptu victory party. Kids
on skateboards waving Chen banners wove in and out of the crowd, while
street vendors set up food stalls. "I'm going to sleep well for the first
time in 50 years," said Shih Shia-shu, 70, a pensioner wearing a Chen
But as Chen's supporters frolicked, others began to worry about where
the newly elected President would lead Taiwan. Mainland China, which has
long threatened invasion if Taiwan declared independence, recently upped
the ante in an official White Paper that vowed to use force if Taipei
continued to delay holding serious negotiations about reunification. Beijing
regarded Chen as the least receptive of the candidates to its "one-China"
policy. In fact, many friends of Taiwan in Asia and the United States
had hoped that someone else--anyone else--would win the election, so that
tensions across the Taiwan Strait would calm down and business would go
back to normal. But on Saturday Taiwanese decided they did not want to
go back to anything. Instead they voted to change the political system
of patronage and corruption--known locally as "black gold"--that has monopolized
power on the island for more than half a century. And if the heavies in
Beijing didn't like that, well, they were in Beijing, and probably shouldn't
have interfered in Taiwan's elections in the first place.
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China's anti-Chen scare tactics may have backfired. "We are used to China's
threats now--they always come up with something, and we have been letting
the KMT play their game for too long," said David Lu, 26, a research assistant
at a Taipei school of fine arts, after voting for Chen. "Stability is
important, and I do have money in the stock market, but in the end I think
Chen can best carry us forward." Said Lee Fan-mei, 35, a secretary: "I
am not afraid of China. We need to assert ourselves as Taiwan and as the
edition's table of contents
Much will depend on precisely how Chen decides to assert himself in the
relationship with China. Despite belligerent words from Beijing during
the campaign, some analysts think China will not escalate tensions until
Chen has shown his true colors on cross-Strait ties. He did not campaign
aggressively against China--on the contrary, he suggested an increase
in commercial contacts. And he says he is prepared to make a goodwill
visit to the People's Republic before his inauguration on May 20. "Chen
is well aware that as President-elect every word he utters will be examined
by the prc--and the U.S.--under a magnifying glass," says Bi-khim Hsiao,
director of international affairs for Chen's Democratic Progressive Party.
The DPP has historically espoused independence, but although the party
charter still has a clause asserting Taiwan's right to self-determination,
Chen has taken pains to distance himself from the independence issue.
In an interview Saturday, Chen said he would immediately set up a cross-party
advisory group to deal with "the very difficult issue of cross-Strait
relations," adding that "passions must subside."
Even if Chen makes the right noises, it is unclear how China will respond.
Taiwan's relations with the mainland have essentially been frozen since
Lee Teng-hui--derided as a "splittist" in Beijing--won the 1996 presidential
election. "The Chinese leadership now must face an important decision,"
says Bruce Jacobs, director of East Asian studies at Monash University
in Perth, Australia. "If they decide that Chen Shui-bian is really a Taiwan
independence supporter no matter what he says, and they refuse to talk
to him, there will be four more years of no progress. But if they draw
a deep breath and say, 'Let's try to get to know one another better,'
it could lead to reduced tensions. China would have a lot to gain from
that in terms of investment and trade from Taiwan."
Others see more dangerous times ahead. "The view may prevail [in Beijing]
that Taiwanese politics has passed the point of no return, leaving no
hope for peaceful resolution--and making eventual military confrontation
inevitable," says Chu Yun-han, a political scientist at National Taiwan
University. Certainly suspicions about Chen's instincts are running high
in Beijing. "Chen's DPP background will constrain him from forming a rational
mainland policy because he won't be able to adopt a policy independent
from his party's," says Yan Xuetong, researcher at Beijing's China Institute
of Contemporary International Relations. "Therefore, his rule will inevitably
worsen cross-Strait relations." In its first public reaction to the election
results, Beijing reiterated its one-China formulation. The official Xinhua
news agency quoted the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council as saying:
"Taiwan's local leadership election and its results cannot change the
fact that Taiwan is a part of China's territory."
China will not be Chen's only problem. Domestic politics also requires
a delicate balancing act from the new President-elect, who won with less
than 40% of the vote. The DPP has only 70 lawmakers in the 225-seat Legislative
Yuan, and Chen will have to reach outside his party to build a functioning
government. As Taipei mayor in the mid-'90s, he was successful in making
appointments across the political spectrum, and he has said that as President
he would be committed to forming a government that transcends ethnic and
party lines. But coalition-building will be more complicated at the national
level, particularly as the KMT is widely expected to split after its loss
at the polls.
Indeed, the resounding defeat of Lien Chan, the KMT candidate, was almost
as momentous as Chen's victory. Despite the backing of outgoing President
Lee and the formidable KMT party machinery, Lien's bid fell apart in the
closing days of the campaign. Voters found his patrician manner wooden
and alienating and were unconvinced by his promises of reforming the party.
The real challenger to Chen turned out to be James Soong, a former KMT
stalwart who was forced out of the party and ran as an independent. Conceding
defeat, Lien told his downcast supporters on Saturday night: "I admit
we failed this time. I realize the party has its shortcomings and we need
to reform to survive."
But the party may not be able to survive in its current form. Lo Chih-cheng,
professor of political science at Taipei's Soochow University, predicts
a "dealignment and then realignment" of the KMT with some pro-Soong forces
who might leave him to create a new party or try to retake control of
the KMT. "The KMT as we have known it will not continue to exist."
Chen's victory and Lien's humiliation were starker than expected. For
months opinion polls had the candidates running neck and neck. In the
final days of the campaign, the competition for votes became cutthroat.
Chen's campaign planners knew they had to neutralize his image as a man
with dangerous pro-independence leanings. They scored their biggest coup
March 10, eight days before the polling, when Chen won the endorsement
of Lee Yuan-tseh. A winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Chemistry and president
of Taiwan's top research institute, the Academia Sinica, Lee has been
called "the conscience of Taiwan" in the local media and had been actively
courted by all three main candidates. Lee brought the necessary balance
to Chen's campaign, reassuring voters who were nervous about the candidate's
views on cross-Strait ties by promising to negotiate with Beijing. "I
think [China] would accept me as a peace envoy," says Lee, who is well-known
on the mainland and has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the Chinese
Academy of Sciences in Beijing.
Cross-Strait tension won't easily dissipate, however. Before the election,
Beijing turned up the rhetoric, with pla generals threatening war if Chen
was elected. On March 13, immediately after those threats, the Taipei
stock market plunged 617 points, a 6.6% decline--the biggest fall since
Beijing lobbed missiles over the Strait in an attempt to disrupt the 1996
election. The market's drop gave the KMT a bit more pre-election ammunition.
Lien pointed to the movement as proof that a Chen victory would be a disaster
for Taiwan. But Chen hit back, claiming the market plunge had been orchestrated
by the KMT to spook voters into voting for Lien. "They tried the threat-of-war
theme, and that didn't work," said Chen. "Now they're trying the financial-collapse
theme, and that won't work either."
The market continued to tank during most of last week, until a government
stabilization fund was mobilized to buy up stocks and stop the panic selling.
By then another bombshell had been dropped, this time from an unexpected
source. Zhu Rongji, China's reform-minded Premier and normally a moderate
voice on the subject of Taiwan, launched an angry attack on Chen. In a
midweek press conference to wind up the annual session of China's parliament,
Zhu warned the electorate in Taiwan against "impulse" voting. "Otherwise
I'm afraid you won't get another opportunity to regret." He said Chinese
were prepared to "shed blood" to protect their territory, and dismissed
Western military analysts who say China is still years away from being
able to invade Taiwan successfully.
Warning lights began flashing red across Asia and as far away as Washington.
If Zhu the moderate was talking war, what were the hawks in the military
planning? U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, on a tour of Asian nations,
said Beijing's "threat of the use of force is counterproductive." Later
in Washington, the State Department summoned China's ambassador, Li Zhaoxing,
to formally protest China's threats and call for Beijing to turn down
Chen's aides admitted they were upset by Zhu's words. But Hsiao, the DPP
international affairs director, said the party had already taken its "immunization
shots" by running TV ads playing on the stability theme. "We had one of
Chen with his childhood friends saying that only if Taiwan is secure would
all his friends be secure," says Hsiao. "Another showed his son who is
going into the military--the message was Chen obviously doesn't want his
own son to go to war."
Meanwhile the other two prominent candidates tried to exploit war fears
to the full. Soong, seen as the closest of the three to Beijing, claimed
he was in the best position to start "a constructive dialogue" with China.
Lien reached deep into his bag of tricks and launched a TV ad scare-campaign
showing submarines with the eerie sound of sonar overlaid with Chinese
nuclear threat warnings. By Friday night, when all three candidates held
their final rallies, Taiwan's people were torn between Chen's promises
of real change, Lien's offer of stability and Soong's claims that he could
reform the system from within without antagonizing China. Chen's promise
of change won. Taiwan will never be the same.
With reporting by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing, Macabe Keliher and Don Shapiro/Taipei
and Barry Hillenbrand and Douglas Waller/Washington
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