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November 30, 2000

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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

Too Close To Call
Whoever wins the tight race for president, Taiwan - and its relationship with China - will never be the same

The gathering is a conference organized by the Economic Affairs Ministry on "restructuring traditional industries," in this case the wet-market trade. But it quickly becomes a campaign rally for Vice President Lien Chan, the ruling Kuomintang's candidate in the Mar. 18 presidential election. Sixty-something Mr. Wu, a retired bureaucrat, is there to lend a hand. "Long live Lien Chan!" he shouts on cue, punching his right fist into the air like everybody else. But pausing from the chanting, Wu has a confession: "I'm only helping out. It's my duty to make the vice president look good." And who is he really supporting? "[Independent James] Soong Chu-yu," Wu admits. "I like his policies for eventual reunification with China."

The story is the same at many of the KMT's carefully staged rallies across the island. The party's support is thin, which means campaign organizers have been hard-pressed to draw crowds and are using, say critics, government events for party purposes. In southern Tainan, a Lunar New Year's celebration for military veterans turned into a Lien Chan show, complete with caps, flags and banners bearing the Lien ticket's butterfly symbol. And on the buses back home, the reward: each participant received NT$200 ($6.50) for attending.

With just days left before Taiwan voters choose a successor to Lee Teng-hui, the race for president is too close to call. For weeks, ex-KMT stalwart Soong and opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Chen Shui-bian have been running neck and neck at the head of the pack, with each attracting about 25% support in opinion surveys. Lien had been slightly behind, but recent polls indicate he has pulled even. Pollsters say up to 30% of the electorate remain undecided - or at least unwilling to reveal their preferences. Says political scientist Wu Yieu-tsun of National Chengchi University: "We won't know [the result] for sure until election day." In the past, the KMT's candidate would have been a sure winner. Now the once all-powerful party, which has ruled Taiwan since the Nationalist government fled the mainland in 1949, is actually in danger of losing the presidency. "My friends and I disagree over whether we support Chen or Soong, but none of us supports Lien," says a top executive of a major local brokerage house. "We want change." The KMT may also have lost much of its traditionally strong support among the business sector. One major complaint: the KMT government's limits on the size of investments across the Taiwan Strait.

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Even if the KMT does prevail (it boasts the heftiest coffers and the most extensive grassroots network), what is increasingly clear is that an era is ending. Domestically, Taiwan could well be entering a new stage as a younger generation of leaders and politicians - even within the KMT - respond to public demands to stamp out corruption and tackle the pervasive problem of "black gold," the infiltration of the political system by gangsters with cash (see story page 24). Ties with the mainland too will change, though just how is less clear. For the sake of regional stability, Asia and the rest of the world are hoping that the confrontation that has marked the past five years of Lee's dozen-year reign will give way to renewed efforts on both sides for reconciliation.

China is certainly watching anxiously. Eager to see the last of Lee and his "two-states" theory, Beijing would prefer Soong or Lien as president but is deeply worried that the DPP's Chen could win. A White Paper that Beijing released recently - which threatens military action if Taipei puts off reunification talks indefinitely - was widely interpreted as an attempt to dissuade voters from casting their lot with Chen, whose party was built on the cause of independence and the quest for a Taiwanese identity. In his Mar. 5 speech before the National People's Congress, Premier Zhu Rongji warned that "we will not sit idly by and watch any serious separatist activity aimed at undermining China's sovereignty." Gen. Zhang Wannian, second only to President Jiang Zemin in the Central Military Commission, was more menacing: "'Taiwan independence' means war."

But the White Paper is not all saber-rattling. In it, Beijing offers for the first time to talk to Taipei "on an equal footing," and agrees to discuss first functional rather than political matters. These significant concessions reflect the urgent priority Jiang is placing on reunification. Both Hong Kong and Macau have returned to the motherland under his watch. Getting Taiwan to come back too would secure his legacy as a Chinese leader in the class of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. At a Lunar New Year tea party, Jiang said he "placed hopes on Taiwan's authorities, but more so on the Taiwan people." His conciliatory remarks indicated that, whoever wins, Beijing would be willing to talk with the new leader - as long as Taipei does not depart from the one-China ideal.

In Taiwan, each of the five presidential candidates - the New Party's Li Ao and independent Hsu Hsin-liang round out the list of contenders - claims to be best able to build bridges across the strait. The realization that continued dialogue with Beijing is essential for stability to be maintained in Taiwan may be behind the pragmatism displayed by all the contenders. "[China's White Paper] is obviously a source of deep concern to us," said Stanley Roth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia, in Hong Kong recently. But he added: "The only long-term, tenable path for Taiwan's security is the resumption of meaningful cross-strait dialogue." Even the DPP's Chen has toned down his independence rhetoric and dropped earlier plans for a referendum on nationhood. Instead, the native-born former mayor of Taipei now says he is willing to begin peace talks with China as soon as he is elected. "People in Taiwan want to see a breakthrough in cross-strait relations," says Andrew Yang Nien-dzu, secretary-general of Taipei's Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "People are not satisfied with the status quo because the status quo means ambiguity, and that means uncertainty."

Mainland relations aren't the only issue on voters' minds. According to Yang, citizens have three priorities: a well-managed, effective constitutional democracy and clean government; a robust and globally competitive economy; and stable and peaceful relations with China. But amid the dirtiest campaign this young democracy has yet seen, the candidates' supporters may be passionate, but none of the three main hopefuls has ignited the campaign trail. "How can the next president manage this situation, with all these major issues together?" asks Yang. "You need some kind of hero, but I don't see one here."

To be sure, following in Lee's footsteps will not be easy. Loved or hated, Lee has consistently rated high in popularity polls for his feistiness, his tough stance toward Beijing and for being Taiwan's first native-born leader. He developed key democratic reforms initiated by his predecessor Chiang Ching-kuo, wresting the mainstream KMT from the conservative mainlander factions. But Lee made many enemies along the way and his aura is inevitably fading. Now, both sides of the strait are focusing on what the post-Lee age will be like.

Lien has perhaps had the toughest time proving he has a vision beyond continuing his boss's policies. He has waffled between asserting a more conciliatory approach to China and insisting that his version of the "two-states theory" differs not a jot from Lee's. But like every protégé attempting to come out from under the wing of his mentor, Lien needs to keep Lee fans onside, while satisfying the president's enemies that he will be different.

The vice president has been distancing himself from Lee in other ways too. Lien irked some in the KMT hierarchy when he vowed to take the party out of business by putting its estimated $6 billion in assets into a trust. The Nationalists' portfolio has tripled under Lee's stewardship, and many of their critics have accused the KMT of abusing such funds by employing them to buy votes in local elections. The Lien camp openly acknowledges that, win or lose, their man aims to clean house. "If we win, we will implement internal reforms," says legislator Eric Chu Li-luan. While Lee has let it be known he wants to stay on as KMT chairman even if Lien becomes president, few are betting that he could hold on to the powerful post for long. "Whether the KMT wins or not, the party will become more democratic when strongman Lee Teng-hui is gone," says Prof. Chao Chien-min of National Chengchi University. "A more transparent political system is emerging."

By posing a threat to Lee, Lien risks alienating the president, who is said to regard Chen with much more affection. Lee and Chen are reported to meet regularly in private. Taiwan is rife with talk that if Lien doesn't pull ahead in the final days of the campaign, Lee may just shift his support - tacitly - to the DPP candidate. That could propel the abrasive oppositionist - the man China least wants - to victory. Chen himself argues that only he can make peace: "When the U.S. opened China, it wasn't the Democrats; it was the [anti-communist] Republican president Nixon. In the same way, it is the DPP's President A-bian [Chen's nickname] who can open relations with Beijing."

As president, Chen is unlikely to do anything provocative toward the mainland, at least initially. Instead, he will probably focus his attention on domestic issues and do on a Taiwan-wide basis what he accomplished in Taipei - cut the bureaucracy, increase the efficiency of the civil service, tackle corruption. But Chen would have to contend with a KMT-dominated legislature, and a civil service and business elite still controlled by Nationalist cadres.

Voters seeking change but who are unwilling to go with Chen could find a home in the Soong camp. In the first weeks after he declared his intention to run and was expelled from the KMT last year, the former Taiwan governor cruised way ahead of his opponents. But after a KMT legislator accused him in February of embezzling $12 million in party funds, his support was cut by a third. Soong insisted the money had been channeled to his account by Lee to be used to support the surviving relatives of Chiang Ching-kuo. Lee called Soong a liar. Though the scandal hurt him, Soong managed to limit the damage, insisting he is a committed reformer. He now says he regrets his part in the dark days of the KMT's martial-law rule. "My campaign slogan is change without chaos, stability with progress," he explains. "The KMT is corrupt - it's been in power for too long."

Few are willing to speculate on what a Soong presidency may be like. Without a party to back him, he would have to build a coalition with both the KMT and the DPP. Because he was born on the mainland, many anticipate that he will work much more actively for cross-strait rapprochement. Yet others are not sure Soong will move so quickly to make peace. Precisely due to his origins, even some supporters say, Soong will be eager to prove his dedication to Taiwan and Taiwanese interests - at least on the surface - by pumping up criticism of the mainland. Potential hostility or peace. In Taiwan's high-stakes presidential race, that's what may ultimately hang in the balance.

With additional reporting by David Hsieh/Beijing

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