Taiwan on the Edge

The events in Taiwan since March 19, the day before the presidential election, can be seen as a Taiwanese version of the long wrangle between Al Gore and George W. Bush more than three years ago. No matter how the election is resolved, something like half the voters will feel cheated. In Taiwan’s case, moreover, the future of the island’s relations with Communist China may be at stake.

After weeks of lively but orderly campaign rallies, on March 19 an unknown gunman or gunmen shot and wounded the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, and the vice-president, Annette Lu, while they were driving through crowds in the southern city of Tainan. The shooting, Mr. Chen’s wound, and its treatment were shown repeatedly in slow motion on television. A few hours later in Taipei I was amazed to see Mr. Chen and Ms. Lu appear on the screen urging calm. In those first hours, the opposition leader, Lien Chan, appeared mildly sympathetic but already suspicious that some sort of conspiracy was involved.

The following day Mr. Chen, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the election with a majority of 0.22 percent, fewer than 30,000 votes out of a total of 13 million. Three hundred thousand ballots had been declared invalid. The losing candidate, Lien Chan, a former vice-president of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, which had ruled Taiwan from 1949 to 2000, refused to acknowledge the result, even after the election commission declared that Mr. Chen had won. Large demonstrations clogged the center of Taipei and continued for several weeks afterward, urged on by Mr. Lien and his main supporters. A week after the shooting the White House, somewhat grudgingly, congratulated Mr. Chen. Beijing announced that it would not “stand idly by” if Taiwan descended into chaos.

As usually happens after attempts at assassination, conspiracy theories abounded. Lien described the shooting as “mysterious.” But experienced American forensic specialists, invited to Taiwan, announced after two days of investigation that the wounds and the bullets were the result of a genuine if badly botched attempt to kill President Chen. Nonetheless, a senior British diplomat assured me when I returned to London that he “knew” there was something “fishy” about the shooting. In Taiwan, after much wild speculation about who might have fired the shots—was he or she a gangster or perhaps a mainland agent?—or even whether Mr. Chen had wounded himself, there is still no reliable evidence about the assassin.

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The tumult and recriminations must not be allowed to obscure the basic fact that Taiwan continues to be a democracy and, as its presidents and opposition party leaders have emphasized since 1997, an independent country. One might say “the first democracy on Chinese soil,” but most people on the island insist they are Taiwanese. Few would have predicted this in 1958, when I went to study on the island for four years. Taiwan was an autocracy then, under martial law. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, the Kuomintang, which had abandoned the mainland after the Communist victory, claimed to be the genuine government of all China, which Chiang vowed to regain.

After Taiwan was taken over from China in 1895, it became fairly prosperous under Japanese rule. When the island was occupied by the KMT in 1945, it had, by Chinese standards, become a relatively modern society. Until the late Seventies the government was entirely in the hands of refugees from the mainland. Three or four times as many Taiwanese were running the economy, many of them in private business, but they were excluded from politics. Washington was committed to the defense of the island, which had become a major air base and CIA station during the Korean War.

The Taiwanese and the mainlanders despised each other. Taiwanese had at first welcomed the mainlanders as liberators from Japanese dictatorship but they were treated as a conquered enemy. Starting on February 28, 1947, two years before Chiang’s flight to the island, his troops violently crushed a rebellion by the local population, massacring thousands. The 1947 rebellion—always called “2:28”—was a bitter memory for Taiwanese.

It was therefore unexpected when Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who succeeded his father as president in 1975, began drawing Taiwanese, whose wealth, talent, and political aspirations he recognized, into local government. By 1986 Chiang unofficially recognized the first opposition party, the Democratic People’s Party, and in 1987, six months before he died, he lifted martial law. Lee Teng-hui, a native-born Taiwanese member of the KMT, succeeded Chiang in 1988. During the next few years the KMT, reflecting Lee’s own ambivalent feelings toward the mainland, abandoned any claims to authority over all of China and the island became the Republic of China on Taiwan, one of two governing entities in a divided nation. Lee became Taiwan’s first democratically elected president. It is hard to know where to assign the main credit for the transformation. That year Antonio Chiang, for years a leading Taiwan journalist and now on Chen’s National Security Council, told me:

We used to have 10,000 political prisoners here, many of them on our own little gulag, Green Island. Their sentences amounted to seven thousand years. All the leaders of the DPP have been in prison. Not many governments would open up a system like that without there having been violence or the threat of violence.

In 1997 Lee told Keith Richburg of The Washington Post and me, reporting for The Times of London: “Taiwan is an independent country. I will negotiate with China but only on equal terms.”

In 2000 the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian won the presidency with less than 40 percent of the vote, defeating two rivals, the KMT’s Lien Chan (Lee Teng-hui’s vice-president) and the Independent Party’s James Soong, both of whom united to run against Chen this March, forming the coalition called Pan Blue. Many in Chen’s government, including himself and Vice President Lu, were once prisoners of the KMT. Chen’s wife has been in a wheelchair since what many believe to have been a politically ordered attempt on her life during the time when the DPP was illegal. On the morning of his inauguration in 2000 he carried her out of the house, a remarkable event at which he underlined the peaceful political transition by inviting his KMT predecessors to the ceremony and later including some of them in his new government.

In his speech in 2000 he praised “the economic miracle” on the mainland and the “political marvel” of Taiwan, and hoped for reconciliation with Beijing and permanent peace. He did not use the word “independent.” In 2002 Chen referred to “one country on each side of the Strait.” But he has since maintained that Taiwan has been independent in fact for many years, never having come under the control of the Communist government on the mainland. In a recent interview he said that if there is a new constitution by 2006 there would be no need to specify that Taiwan is independent because it already is.

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The government in Taipei has long-since given up any pretense that it is the legitimate authority for all China and claims only to be the government of the sovereign independent state or country of Taiwan. Both the DPP and the KMT agree on this. If Mr. Chen manages to cling to power, however, and in three or four years changes the official name of the island to Taiwan, that could be too much of a change for Beijing to tolerate. The KMT’s Lien Chan said before the election that if he were negotiating with the mainland leaders during a “journey of peace” to Beijing, he would “shelve” the matter of Taiwan’s independence. Most observers believe China’s leaders would prefer almost anyone to Chen.

If Chen Shui-bien received support from just over half the voters who responded to his insistence on independence, almost as many voted for Lien Chan. Fifteen percent of the island’s voters are mainlanders or the children of mainlanders; they traditionally vote for the KMT and they resent, as some of them told me, what appears to be Chen’s rejection of Taiwan’s Chinese background.

Moreover, many of the Taiwanese who voted for Lien were farmers and fishermen who benefited from loans handed out by local KMT bureaucrats and bankers. These two groups and others agree with KMT claims that Taiwan is the prosperous place it is because of decades of KMT rule. Taiwan has been in a recession since at least 2000 and many Taiwanese blame this, probably unfairly, on the DPP. Many were also deeply influenced by decades of KMT-controlled education in which they learned that real patriotism means loyalty to the KMT and recognition of Taiwan’s place in Chinese history and culture. A considerable number of Taiwanese owe their local and national government jobs to the KMT. So do tens of thousands working on the railways and in the utilities, such as electricity and telecom, who fear that the DPP may privatize their industries, which are notoriously overstaffed. Young men, moreover, must have appreciated Lien’s promise to reduce universal conscription from twenty months to three. Some Taiwanese feared that Chen might be leading them to war with China. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Taiwanese with business interests in China voted for the KMT.1

While the inclusion of Taiwanese in political life and their recent claims to supremacy are now central facts on the island, so is the continuing controversy over “identity.” Most of Taiwan’s 23 million people, including 300,000 or so aborigines of non-Han descent, and many Hans of mainland background, now call themselves Taiwanese rather than Hans or ethnic Chinese, just as many in Hong Kong call themselves Hong Kongers. As Melissa J. Brown, a Stanford anthropologist, points out in her instructive and comprehensive new book Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities,2 it is the new sense of identity on Taiwan, and the democratic right to express it, that led to “regime change.” She argues convincingly that Beijing’s attempts to stifle this democratic desire for regime change have in fact strengthened them. Now, although most Taiwanese speak Mandarin, which precariously remains the official language, they prefer to speak their own dialects, and their schools teach Taiwanese history—which was little mentioned in the past. One of the main streets in Taipei is now renamed for one of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples.

But the Taiwanese themselves are split between the two main ethnic groups, the Hakka and the Hoklo, each with different backgrounds and different dialects. The KMT favored the Hakka, who voted for their patrons. In southern Taiwan, according to Professor Bruce Jacobs, an expert on Taiwan at Australia’s Monash University, writing immediately after the election,

Chen Shui-bian’s narrow reelection victory was built on his victory in southern Taiwan, the heartland of Taiwan’s Hokkien [Hoklo] population and the center of the island’s new “Taiwan consciousness.” With 31.8 percent of the votes cast yesterday, the eight southern counties and municipalities gave Chen over 59 percent of their vote, a lead of over 750,000 votes.

As Professor Jacobs says, besides winning in the northern constituencies, which have many mainland voters, Lien Chan did well in the counties with Hakka majorities.

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All this is beside the point in Beijing, which rejects any suggestion of Taiwanese identity. Taiwan, the Chinese insist, is simply one of China’s provinces, temporarily in the hands of usurpers. The principal mainland weapons against Taiwan have been isolation, economic pressure, and intimidation. The People’s Republic displaced Taiwan in the UN and in most other international bodies. During the SARS crisis last year, even after the disease reached Taiwan, the island on Beijing’s insistence was excluded for several weeks from contact with the World Health Organization, with the exception of one meeting in Malaysia. The same exclusion prevailed during this year’s chicken flu epidemic. A question for the future is whether the US and other nations will insist that WHO have direct relations with Taiwan.

Another Chinese weapon is an economic one. Taiwan is now the biggest investor on the mainland—more than 50,000 firms have invested somewhere between $60 billion and $100 billion—and one million Taiwanese live and work there, 500,000 in the Shanghai region alone. Many of these favor an accommodation with Beijing, possibly even reunification at some point. One hundred thousand of them were said to have flown back to Taiwan before the election to vote against Mr. Chen. A southern Taiwanese, from the group usually most favorable to the DPP, told me that he had spent two years working in Shanghai, and the only reason he was not there at the moment was that his wife wanted him to stay home. “People like me want good jobs. We don’t care about politics. Independence is an empty word—like my daughter saying she’s independent. Who thinks we’re independent? Only twenty-six or twenty-seven countries. What a joke. I’m voting for Lien.”

Mainland economic pressure was such a sensitive matter before the election that when I suggested to Economics Vice Minister Shih Yen-hsiang that voters who worked on the mainland might put him out of a job, he replied, “This is a tough question, and I prefer not to answer it.” But Mr. Chen is resolute that Taiwan must stand on its principles. In a recent interview with The Washington Post he said,

I think the key issue is not that I personally refuse to accept the “one China” principle. It’s the twenty-three million people of Taiwan who cannot accept the so-called “one China” principle. Because the “one China” principle denotes the “one country, two systems” formula, making Taiwan into the second Hong Kong, making Taiwan into a special administrative region of China, and also making Taiwan a local government of China, which is totally unacceptable to our people.

Most Taiwanese of whatever political stripe would agree with those strongly stated words. But the fact that must be faced is that while Taiwan is by most measures independent—with its efficient government, successful economy, army, anthem, and flag—it can also fairly be termed a protectorate of the United States. The Taiwan army, about 380,000 strong, is well equipped with American weapons but would not last long, perhaps only a few weeks, against a full-scale Chinese onslaught, especially since the Chinese military forces have been rapidly improving their ability to invade Taiwan. June Dreyer of Miami University, an expert on Chinese military matters, worries that “it is possible that an accumulation of Taiwan’s small gestures might trigger a strong mainland reaction.”3 Professor Dreyer suggests, too, that the day may come when Taiwan’s economy is so tightly integrated into the mainland that its government will have to confront “the choice of capitulating to [Beijing’s] demands for unification or face certain defeat.”

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This raises a disturbing point. American officials normally speak about the two Chinas with what they call “deliberate ambiguity,” so that neither Taipei nor Beijing can be certain what the US would do in case of a mainland attack on the island. Recently some US officials, including several in Taiwan for the election, have warned that if there were such an onslaught and Taiwan appeared about to lose, the United States would “take the war to the mainland, including hitting their cities.” The situation, they insist, is grave, and they recall the threats in December by the mainland Chinese Major General Peng Guangqian and Senior Colonel Luo Yuan that if driven to reunify with Taiwan by force, China would be willing to sacrifice the 2008 Olympics, huge casualties, economic recession, and international condemnation. The Chinese Communist Party, the Americans explain, as do Chinese-American academics with good contacts in China, could not risk its legitimacy as the guardian of China’s sacred territory if Chen were allowed, for example, to claim independence under international law. While I was in Taipei, a senior American official, there for the election, told me:

The US is ready. The tracks are laid and the engine is getting up steam; if things go on like this I see us going to war across the Strait by 2006. What I hope is that the fog of ambiguity remains over the Strait for another ten years; then Chen and company will be gone. There has to be an accommodation with Beijing.

Such officials are frank about their irritation with Chen for using phrases and taking positions that provoke Beijing. Chen, they claim, believes that China would not attack and that the Communist leaders must accept the realities of Taiwan’s independent status. Indeed, on February 3 Chen said,

History will concur that Mainland China virtually never supports what the people of Taiwan want, though rarely does their protest entail open opposition. Therefore, as long as we are able to voice the collective will of the people of Taiwan, demonstrate consensus and make our demands clear, Mainland China will have no choice but to give us credence and serious consideration.

After the election Mr. Chen exhibited the same confidence that China could accept the status quo: “The fundamental reason I won this presidential election…is because there is a rising Taiwan identity and it has been solidified. I think the Beijing authorities should take heed of this fact and accept the reality.”

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Taiwan officials like Dr. Tsai Ing-wen, chairman of the Taiwan Government Mainland Affairs Council, note that China has employed a new weapon: “They use third parties, like the United States and France,” she said while I was in Taipei, “to put pressure on Taipei to moderate its position.” Such high officials point to President Bush’s statement last December in the presence of China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, during his visit to Washington, warning Taiwan not to change the status quo. This American pressure, together with Beijing’s direct threats, probably explains why Chen, while barely winning the election, could not get enough Taiwanese to vote on the referendums he put before the electorate. They posed two questions: First, did the voters want Taiwan to have the latest anti-missile system to counter the almost five hundred missiles China has aimed at Taiwan? Second, did they want peace talks with the mainland?

Beijing charged that the questions posed were simply another example of “creeping independence.” Taiwan voters may have seen the questions as both unnecessary—they certainly want Taiwan to be able to defend itself—and unnecessarily provocative, even though Mr. Chen had stated he would regard a “no” vote as a serious rebuff. After the election he said that just having held the referendum was in itself a success for democracy. Those who voted on these propositions were mostly favorable to them, but not enough people voted to make the results binding.

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Plainly the uncertainties and dangers of the present situation are real. As of this writing, an election recount is scheduled to begin on May 10, which will probably confirm Chen’s narrow victory. If, following a recount, there is a new election—which seems unlikely—most Western experts forecast another close victory for Chen. If he wins again, I doubt the Chinese will attack, because they fear an American counterattack (of which they doubtless have been warned). But Chen Shui-bian is perhaps too hopeful when he says, “I think democracy is our best TMD [theater missile defense] in the face of China’s military threat.” Tsai Ing-wen said much the same to me in Taipei. If they are mistaken, a war would leave much of Taiwan a smoking ruin, even if the mainland didn’t win.

On April 22, in its first detailed response to the elections, the Bush administration said that unilateral moves toward Taiwanese independence—such as promulgating a constitution by 2006, as Chen promised—could provoke a military response “that would destroy much of what Taiwan has built and crush its hopes for the future.” Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly said that “while we strongly disagree with China’s approach…it would be irresponsible to treat [its] statements as empty threats.” It may well be that behind the scenes Washington is using much stronger language to Beijing, warning it not to attack Taiwan.

In the end it is hard not to sympathize with Peng Ming-min, a special adviser to President Chen, who, now eighty-one, has taken part in the long struggle of the Taiwanese for independence. Imprisoned by the KMT in 1962 after calling for a democratic constitution and Taiwanese independence, Peng was placed under lifelong house arrest. In 1970 he dramatically escaped abroad, not to return until 1992.4 “How do we threaten China?” he asked me a few days before the election. “We need a modern constitution, a government that represents the one-hundred-years hope of our people for our own government. Does the status quo mean living under the perpetual threat of war? We are a real state. Twenty-three million people puts us in the top quarter of the world’s countries, only a few million less than Iraq. The US is trying to bring democracy to Iraq. We have already created our own.”

  1. See the useful article by Laurence Eyton, Asia Times, March 3, 2004.
  2. University of California Press, 2004.
  3. Peace and Security Across the Taiwan Strait, edited by Steve Tsang (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), p. 147.
  4. See Peng Ming-min, A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Formosan Independence Leader (Holt, 1972).