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Paris, Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Voters Said No to the Kuomintang as Much as Yes to Independence

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune.
HONG KONG - Chen Shui-bian's stunning victory in the Taiwan presidential election owes much to the TV image of an overbearing Zhu Rongji of China threatening the Taiwanese on how to vote. The counterproductive arrogance of China's one-party leadership never ceases to amaze.

However, equally stunning was the success of James Soong, the independent renegade from the Nationalists who favors closer relations with the mainland. He polled 60 percent more than the official Nationalist candidate, vice president Lien Chan.

Mr. Soong's achievement reflected public disillusion with the corruption and money politics of the Nationalists or Kuomintang. Mr. Soong's easy style and personal popularity contrasted with Mr. Lien's long-evident lack of the gifts for communicating with a mass audience.

So the net effect of the election is more a huge setback for the Nationalists than a major advance for the supporters (open or covert) of Taiwan independence. One hopes that Beijing recognizes this and does not try to figure out a way to punish the Taiwanese for daring to elect Mr. Chen, a Taiwanese of humble origin with no connections to previous power holders. So far, Beijing's post-election statements have been a restrained contrast to its pre-election threats.

The president-elect is going to be extremely cautious in what he says. He knows better than to incite Beijing, and Washington has undoubtedly been underlining that its commitment to Taiwan is not absolute. Given his party's history of open support for independence, it will be more important for him to shelve the constitutional issues than it has been for Lee Teng-hui, who was able to use push his two-states theory within the concept of eventual reunification.

Mr. Chen's immediate problem is that while he genuinely wants better cross-Strait relations, which would yield economic gains, Beijing's priority is political - to force Taiwan to make some gestures toward a unification in which Mr. Chen does not believe.

In practice, though, Mr. Chen has some bargaining power. There is little that China can do now to hurt Taiwan without seriously damaging its relationship with the United States and its economic growth priorities. Despite the rhetoric about shedding blood for the unity of the nation, the leadership has other goals.

Indeed, because China's WTO accord with the United States is in danger in Congress because of the threats to Taiwan, Mr. Chen's support for the trade deal could come in handy in Washington.

A Chen-led administration might prove more accommodating on direct cross-Strait shipping and air links. No progress will be possible if Beijing sticks to forms of words that insist on its sovereignty. But if the Beijing leadership could show flexibility on language, it could then claim that by establishing direct links, it was making practical advances towards reunification, even if they were not seen as such in Taiwan.

Mr. Chen will also have to take into account the new dynamics of domestic politics. Up until now, the Democratic Progressive Party was able to push the Nationalists progressively closer to Taiwanese identity. It suited Mr. Lee's personal views as well as political interest to steal some of the opposition's Taiwanese clothes.

Despite disarray among the Nationalists, Mr. Chen's power will be limited by his party's minority position in the legislature. Whatever happens now to the Nationalists, or whatever party forms around Mr. Soong, the opposition will make cross-Strait relations an issue if the new president's policies are causing too much difficulty with Beijing.

Whoever is in power in a democratic Taiwan must shape policy around the fact that most Taiwanese are happy with de facto independence. They want the status quo. They neither want to risk conflict with the mainland nor surrender to a unification agenda with which they disagree.

If mainlanders could express their view, they, too, would likely prefer to get along with economic and social development and, as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping both believed, let history take care of Taiwan.