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November 30, 2000

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

Taiwan's Democracy Factor
An analysis of how freedom has changed Taiwan's society - and the nature of the reunification equation

On the evening news is a segment about a local fashion designer. He decides to express his political opinion by "designing" clothes that feature the campaign colors of the three leading presidential candidates: Three topless models sport nothing but swaths of bright paint across their bosoms.

Then there is the television commercial showing two men dressed in black robbing a bank. "The ruling party has been robbing you of billions," says the voice-over. "Not only do they want you to put up with it, they now want you to forget the past. It's time to switch parties!"

Meanwhile, a presidential candidate celebrates Valentine's Day by conducting a mock wedding - between his vice-presidential running mate and his campaign manager, both women. The candidate openly calls on the government to recognize gay and lesbian rights, including same-sex marriages.

The Candidates On China

"I would like to explore the possibility of building better relations with the mainland, establishing what I call a win-win situation between the two sides."

"Our fundamental position is that we want to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait."


"The ones who can normalize relations with the mainland are not the parties that have had historical disputes with China. The KMT-Communist Party dispute still exists. The DPP, on the other hand, has no historical baggage."

"Why do I believe in 'one country, two systems'? Because 'one country, two systems' is better than 'one country, one system.'"

"We must look at China as a major part of the global economy and not as an enemy."

No, this isn't liberal Western Europe. This is modern Taiwan, where freedom of expression has practically no boundaries. Since the government ended martial law in 1987, the island has not only flourished economically but fostered a relatively sophisticated sense of democracy.

Though Beijing may disagree, there is no question that President Lee Teng-hui has made at least one major contribution to Chinese history: He has overseen the emergence of Taiwan as the freest Chinese society in modern times. Concurrent with this high degree of self-expression has been prosperity. With only 22 million people, Taiwan has the world's third-largest foreign reserves: a whopping $100 billion.

In a way, Beijing should thank Lee for making Taiwan a democracy. Unlike in China, people here can speak out frankly - even in favor of the mainland Communists - without fear of political repression. One of the minor candidates in the presidential race, Li Ao of the New Party, openly calls for accepting China's "one country, two systems" formula. The other minor candidate, independent Hsu Hsin-liang, advocates embracing China for the sake of Taiwan's economic prosperity.

But this freedom is a double-edged sword. It means that while Taiwan people can openly support China, few will want to do so. Having tasted democracy, they are unlikely to see eye-to-eye with an authoritarian China - unless, of course, the latter undertakes a program of political reforms of its own.

Under Lee's 12-year presidency, Taiwan has formed a unique identity distinct from that of the mainland. Lee calls his people the "New Taiwanese" - an amalgamation of aborigines, "native Taiwanese" (who migrated to the island from the mainland during the Ming and Qing dynasties) and "mainlanders" (who arrived on or after 1949).

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New Taiwanese, unlike their cousins across the Taiwan Strait, are an openly assertive lot. Many are well heeled and well educated; a significant number have received advanced degrees from the U.S. They demand that politicians be accountable to their interests, and polls indicate that these Taiwanese are in no hurry to reunite with China, which they see as backward both economically and politically. Many have been to Hong Kong, but they are not impressed with the "one country, two systems" formula.

Taiwan's three major presidential candidates are all willing to pursue peace with China, but they are likely to be restrained by two factors: First, the race is so tight that whoever wins will do so by a small margin and will not have a mandate. The new president will thus have to reach a cross-party consensus before dealing with China. Second, the influence of mass sentiment is such that the new president must win the confidence of the people before any negotiations.

Until recently, though, Beijing seems to have been largely oblivious to Taiwan's democratic dynamics, thinking instead that the island was like China: a country ruled by a single authoritarian party dictating the agenda from the top down. Before China's recent White Paper, says Lin Chong-pin, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, Beijing called for talks between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang. Mainland authorities only recently began to realize that the KMT might not even be the ruling party after this election - hence the change of wording in the White Paper, which speaks of talks between Taiwan and the People's Republic.

The best way for Beijing to proceed, advises Lin, is to win over the hearts and minds of the New Taiwanese. Wooing them is like wooing a pretty girl; patience is key. Rather than forcing Taiwan into a corner, says Lin, Beijing should adopt a new tact: smile more, issue fewer threats and stop the bullying. Only when they see a friendly China will the people of Taiwan change their minds about reunification and push their new president toward achieving it.

There is a lesson in Beijing's smart handling of investors from across the strait. Courted for years by mainland officials and now numbering some 200,000, Taiwan businesspeople in China form a powerful lobbying force for eventual reunification. Hayes Lou, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Businessmen Association of Dongguan, the largest group of Taiwan investors in China, says many of his peers will vote for independent James Soong Chu-yu, seen as the most pro-unification of the three main candidates.

At the same time, however, the majority of Taiwan's pragmatic business community agrees with President Lee's assertion that Taiwan can reunite with China only after the latter develops more democratic institutions of its own. Even Beijing's friends in Taiwan's ruling circles say the mainland should initiate some form of political reform if it wants Taiwan to rush into a marriage.

Wei Wou, a former deputy director-general of cultural affairs of the KMT and currently a guest professor at Peking University, says Beijing need not even follow Taiwan's model of democracy. "Taiwan's model is too turbulent," says Wei, a leader of the old-guard mainland faction within the KMT. "If this model took effect in China, China would split up." But he urges the Communist Party to allow existing minor political parties to take a more active role in governing the country. "The Chinese Communist Party must face up to reality," he says. "It must begin political reforms. Economic reforms without political reforms cannot continue."

For all the gulf that remains between Taiwan and China, Wei says he is optimistic about the future of cross-strait relations, especially now that the Lee Teng-hui era is drawing to a close. "Taiwan has a way out of this morass," he says. "I believe all Chinese on both sides of the strait can stand up in the 21st century."

Also expressing hope is Lin of the Mainland Affairs Council. World Bank studies show that once a country's per-capita GDP reaches $7,000, political pluralism begins setting in. China's current per-capita GDP is $880, says Lin, and if it continues to grow at an average of about 8%, it will reach $7,000 by 2025. He feels Taiwan and China - culturally so similar - will eventually find a way to reunite. All that is needed is time.

The question is: Can China wait? President Jiang Zemin, eager to boost his own stature closer to that of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, is said to want to "resolve" the Taiwan issue by 2005. China can certainly pressure Taiwan to start talking. But to force the island into reunification before it is ready would only raise the stakes for conflict. Beijing should not underestimate Taiwan's will and ability to defend itself: Polls have indicated that 70% of Taiwanese are willing to go to war to defend the island if it is attacked by China.

Nor should Beijing dismiss American willingness to help Taiwan in case of war. Washington has been deliberately vague over the matter, and its efforts to curb pro-independence rhetoric from Taiwan have led to the view that the U.S. supports eventual reunification. But a senior State Department official says privately that this is a common misperception. "We support the resolution of the differences through a peaceful process," he says. "We have no idea what that would be. We're not smart enough. "And if China resorts to military means? "The U.S. is committed to coming to Taiwan's aid if the People's Republic attacks."

Of course, war is not in anybody's interests - not China's or Taiwan's or the Asia region's. The hope must be that common sense prevails, that all parties realize patience and continued dialogue are the only solution.

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