Election, China's Future
By TIMOTHY GARTON ASH
February 23, 2000
Taiwan -- The light from thousands of red and yellow paper
lanterns caught the eyes of porcelain dragons at the Lungshan
Temple as people crowded a few days ago to burn "golden money,"
at 30 cents a bundle, in a tall ornamental furnace. Some asked
for blessings in the new year from Kuanyin, the goddess of
mercy; others bowed to the red-faced statue of a long-ago
Chinese general, known as the god Kuan Kung.
at the temple were for peace and safety, but in Beijing, today's
red-faced generals are talking of war. As Taiwan begins a
campaign to elect a new president, China's state council has
issued an official white paper threatening the use of force
if Taiwan is not prepared to enter negotiations about "reunification."
And the Taiwan candidate causing the greatest worry in Beijing
is an opposition leader, Chen Shui-bian.
election rally I attended in a town just outside Taipei, Mr.
Chen began his speech with themes that would be entirely familiar
to any Western voter: welfare, education, housing, transport.
He hardly mentioned relations with mainland China. But much
of his support comes from forces Beijing is not used to dealing
with -- upstart opponents of the Kuomintang party that has
ruled Taiwan since being forced into exile there by the Communists
people, hungry for democracy and a chance to share in their
own government, may be political enemies of Beijing's enemies,
but they are not likely to be Beijing's friends. At the rally,
I saw Mr. Chen's vice-presidential candidate appealing with
unabashed populism to Taiwanese resentment of "the mainlanders"
-- a reference to the Kuomintang, but hardly a comfort to
the new mainlanders now looking east.
time the people of Taiwan went to the polls to elect a president,
in 1996, the Chinese fired missiles over the straits that
separate Taiwan from the mainland, and the United States sent
warships in response. For a moment, it felt like a new Cuban
missile crisis in the Far East.
around, a high-level United States delegation has been in
Beijing, mainly to restore relations after NATO's bombing
of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, but also to try to ensure
that nothing like the saber-rattling of 1996 happens again.
Yet now something very similar does seem to be happening,
as the big brother across the strait shamelessly tries to
In an interview with the Washington Post published before
the Chinese white paper was issued, the presidential candidate
of Taiwan's Kuomintang, Lien Chan, warned of the danger of
"foreign invasion" if he was not elected. The implication
was that a vote in his favor would keep Red China happy --
an odd promise at first glance. The Kuomintang, after all,
is the Communists' old enemy from the chinese civil war. This
was the party that claimed, while ruling Taiwan in a brutal
dictatorship, to be the one true China and kept up the pretense,
with American protection, for decades.
the while Taiwan was developing its own, separate identity,
at least superficially on a thoroughly American model. And
it is that evolution, rather than the old stalemate with the
nationalists, that makes the Communists really angry. What
made China furiously denounce Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui,
last summer was his statement that relations between Taiwan
and China are "special state-to-state relations," implying
that Taiwan was a separate state.
Lien, Mr. Lee's chosen successor, is playing down the state-to-state
formula. "We won't rock the boat," he told me in his Washington
English. And while Beijing's favorite candidate in Taiwan's
election is James Soong, who left the Kuomintang in order
to stand as an independent, clearly it would prefer Mr. Lien
to Chen Shui-bian.
Mr. Chen who has the greatest potential to advance the consolidation
of democracy in Taiwan. As democratic institutions have grown
since the end of martial law in 1987, Mr. Chen's Democratic
Progressive Party, too, has grown.
It is one of those parties you encounter in countries that
have emerged from long dictatorships -- one in which every
second member seems to have been a political prisoner under
the old, repressive regime. At a reception, I met a legislator
who had served 11 years in prison. A former party chairman
who did 25 years is called "Taiwan's Mandela." Chen Shui-bian,
who was a defense lawyer for opposition activists, served
eight months on a trumped-up charge.
these opposition leaders are deeply committed to democracy.
But many are also Taiwanese nationalists, anxious to realize
the aspirations of the native Taiwanese majority so long frustrated
by the mainlanders who elbowed them aside in 1948. In their
hearts, they would probably like full independence for Taiwan,
as a separate, internationally recognized, fully sovereign
state. Both commitments -- to full-blooded democracy and to
a separate Taiwan -- make them especially hateful to Beijing.
In his proclaimed China policy, Mr. Chen is almost as conciliatory
and pragmatic as his rivals. His supporters argue to me that
China will actually find it easier to deal with the "hard-liner"
Chen -- just as they found Richard Nixon easier to work with
than the Democrats. Only a man with Mr. Chen's Taiwanese nationalist
credentials, they say, can make the necessary concessions
to China without fear of being accused of treachery. Perhaps,
but Beijing doesn't seem to see it that way.
threat could lead wavering Taiwan voters to play safe and
vote once again for the Kuomintang, or for the China-friendly
Mr. Soong. But such obvious bullying could also inflame Taiwanese
sentiments against the mainland and the mainlanders, winning
support for Mr. Chen.
shouting's over, everyone knows that, realistically, Taiwan's
future for a long time to come will be neither unification
with the mainland nor full acknowledgment of itself as an
independent nation, but rather to continue with what Mr. Chen
calls a "third way." Yet certainly a change of party at the
top would help to dismantle the remaining undemocratic vestiges
of the Kuomintang's one-party state.
this meant choppier relations with Beijing in the short term,
it would be good for the world, too, in the long term. With
all its faults, Taiwan is already something remarkable: the
first democracy in 5,000 years of Chinese history. If it goes
well, it will be a small positive example to the larger nation
that constitutes one fifth of humankind.
Garton Ash, a fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, is the
author, most recently, of "History of the Present: Essays,
Sketches and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990's."