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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

DESERTING 'INDEPENDENCE'

The Opposition Softens Its Line, But Will Peng?


PENG MING-MIN IS confident he knows what is good for Taiwan. "I've lived through the contemporary history of Taiwan," says the 72-year-old presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and leading advocate of Taiwan independence. "I know the aspiration of the Taiwanese people." If young people don't have the same vision of Taiwan's destiny, he says, it is because of "brainwashing" through the ruling Kuomintang's control of the media and education.

He may well be right that the young don't share his vision. A survey earlier this month indicated that 45.2% of Taiwan people support the KMT's Lee Teng-hui in his bid for another term as president. Peng garnered a meager 6.1%, placing fourth in a field of five candidates. For all the respect that is accorded Peng as a scholar and politician, his appeal is strongest among the older generations, who remember past KMT oppression. Sentiment for outright independence is lowest among young people, who - despite efforts to woo them with rock bands - are clearly missing from DPP rallies.

Beijing's angry reaction to Lee's recent efforts to raise Taiwan's profile in the international community is the main reason for the DPP's loss of support. The party's apparent decline in fortunes is sudden. Only a year ago it was campaigning confidently for local elections, winning the key Taipei mayoralty and capturing nearly 30% of provincial assembly seats.

Not surprisingly, the DPP has been re-evaluating its line on independence. In a recent 60,000-page campaign platform, the party made no explicit mention of independence, instead using indirect language such as "ensuring Taiwan's sovereignty." Chen Shui-bian all but ignored the issue in winning the Taipei mayoralty last December (concentrating instead on a bungled mass rapid transit project that had angered commuters). The mayor even told Peng recently that the independence question was "box-office poison."

That can't have been reassuring for Peng, who is known as the "godfather" of the Taiwan independence movement. Born during the Japanese colonial era, Peng spent World War II studying in Japan (he lost his left arm during an American bombing raid on Nagasaki). He completed his studies at the prestigious National Taiwan University and later became chairman of its political science department. Although he gained the respect of Taiwan notables, including even strongman Chiang Kai-shek, he was arrested in 1964 for trying to distribute 10,000 copies of a manifesto on self-determination for Taiwan. After his eight-year prison sentence was commuted to house arrest, he escaped into exile and settled in the U.S.

Peng returned home in 1992 following the repeal of martial law, and joined the DPP last February. He was able to use his extensive contacts both in Taiwan and in Taiwan independence movements abroad to secure a place in the first round of the party's presidential nomination process. He edged out former DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang, using what observers described as a distinguished and fluid style in contrast to his rival's negative campaigning.

Some observers think that Peng will not soften his pro-independence stance, even at the risk of alienating skittish voters. Others, like political scientist Lu Ya-li, point to the pragmatism of his running mate Frank Hsieh, a lawyer and hard-nosed veteran of the campaign trail. "Hsieh brings rich experience in running political campaigns and is likely to tone down Peng's ideology," says Lu.

Whatever happens, Peng is not likely to become palatable to Beijing. After all, he has described reunification as "suicide" and "self-destruction." (Lee by contrast says he supports the concept.) Peng also maintains that China should be kept at arm's length as an economic partner and that Taiwan should chart its own course, regardless of bluster and threats from Beijing. "We don't decide our policy purely on China's reaction," he says.

For Peng, Taiwan independence is not an issue. "I have been saying that Taiwan is de facto independent in the sense that this government exercises full sovereignty over Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu," he says. "This situation has existed since 1949, so the question now is not whether or not to declare, quote unquote, independence. I would reaffirm, restate this fact and ask all concerned, including the government and the world, to accept this fact."

Peng believes that Taiwan's pursuit of a place in the United Nations and constructive dialogue with the mainland are not mutually exclusive. He says a cross-strait summit meeting will have to come during the tenure of the next president, adding: "Of course if I am invited, I will go." But before that happens, he will have to persuade Taiwan's electorate that voting for him is in its best interest, and Beijing authorities that he is a man they can talk to. Both are formidable hurdles.

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