‘Taiwan Stands Up’

Politics in Taiwan is a deadly business, sometimes literally. Chen Shui-bian’s first public act, on the morning of his inauguration as president on May 20, was to carry his wife in his arms to their waiting car. In 1985 she had been run down by a car while her husband, one of the leaders of the then-illegal opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has now come to supreme power, was campaigning for a local magistrate’s post. Mr. Chen has always maintained that she was the victim of an assassination attempt by agents of the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT). His wife never walked again. Moreover, the new transportation minister, Yeh Chu-lan, was widowed in the early Nineties when her husband burned himself to death protesting the government’s restrictions on free speech. And in 1980, while the man who is now DPP chairman, Lin Yi-hsiung, was in jail, an assassin stabbed to death his mother and twin daughters.

Mr. Chen himself spent eight months in prison in 1985 for writing an article that offended the Kuomintang. His vice president, Annette Lu, began a twelve-year sentence in 1979 on a trumped-up charge of sedition and incitement to violence; she served five and a half years. The day before the inauguration I attended a lunch in Taipei that Ms. Lu gave for the Albuquerque, New Mexico, branch of Amnesty International, which had begun the international campaign to free her. Ms. Lu wept as she recalled that had she not been freed she probably would have died in prison, where she had been diagnosed with cancer. There were other ex-prisoners at the table. Taiwan’s last political prisoner, after twenty-seven years behind bars, was freed only in 1991.

Domestic political violence appears to have ended on Taiwan, but the military threats the Mainland has been making since the beginning of democratic politics remain alarming. In 1995 and 1996, during Taiwan’s first campaign for national president—another first in China’s history—Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Straits and conducted invasion exercises along the Mainland coast. The menace ceased in 1996 only after the United States moved two naval battle groups, including aircraft carriers, near Taiwan. This year, during the election campaign, in which the voters preferred Chen Shui-bian to the KMT candidate, Beijing escalated its war of words, warning Taiwan, as Deng Xiaoping had laid down years ago, that it would “use force” if the new government declared independence. After Mr. Chen’s victory on March 20, Beijing warned again that Taiwan faced a war if he refused to declare that there was only One China.

The United States added to the pressure on Taiwan during these months, with White House officials hoping that Taipei would not do anything “provocative.” A parade of American officials, think-tank strategists, and political scientists carried the same message to Taipei. It is a measure of the seriousness of this pressure that when I suggested in a recent newspaper article that Taiwan was a democracy of which Americans should be proud and that admonitions, if any, should be delivered in Beijing, I received a letter from an American academic who has also been an adviser on China in Washington, warning me that my suggestion “could easily lead to war.”

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When I talked with Vice President Lu just before her inauguration, she said this American advice to Taiwan—which some of the island’s strategic thinkers who have been educated in the US also resent—is “like domestic violence. The husband bullies the wife. His friends think he has the right to do this, because he’s bigger and stronger, so they tell her to be patient and not annoy him.” This is the sort of statement that leads some Americans to describe Ms. Lu as reckless. A strategist in the Taipei government who is regularly visited by uneasy Americans told me that his impression is that “they think China is crazy and that there are factions there which would like to attack Taiwan because they are frustrated at the instability in their own country. But what are we supposed to do? Surrender?”

Attorney General Janet Reno has placed Taiwan on a list of thirteen countries “designated…as country threats,” a vague phrase used to describe nations whose activities are considered in some way hostile to the US. These countries ranged in descending order of danger from Russia and China through North Korea, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Libya to Taiwan. I have been told by some security experts that Taiwan deserves to be on this list; neither they nor the Attorney General says why. Other experts say that the “designation” is intended to placate Beijing, which has been offended by being placed on the list.

Mr. Chen’s inaugural address was notable for its low-key dignity and also its lack of bitterness about the past persecution that left his wife in a wheelchair forever. He used no provocative language and he attempted to hold out a neighborly hand to the Mainland. The cold war is over, Mr. Chen observed, and “it is time for the two sides to cast aside the hostilities left from the old era.” This is the time for reconciliation, he said, remarking that people on both sides of the Straits “share the same ancestral, cultural, and historical background”—although he modified this reference to shared history later in the speech. I was told that the American Institute, the de facto American embassy in Taipei, which is staffed with foreign service officers temporarily classed as civilians to please Beijing, had been assured by Chen’s staff that nothing would be said that would tip Beijing over the edge into violence. Mr. Chen therefore promised that “as long as the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] regime has no intention to use military force against Taiwan,” he would not declare independence at any point in his term. Nor would Taiwan demand “state to state” relations with the Mainland. He indicated that “the problem of One China” should be discussed.

Beijing’s initial reaction to these assurances was to accuse Mr. Chen of “insincerity,” but within a few days a spokesman, while not dropping that charge, suggested that there was no hurry over the question of One China and he even admitted that Mr. Chen should not be pressed too hard.

Ms. Lu, who is called “scum” by Beijing, was not so restrained. In her conversation with me she said repeatedly that Taiwan is a “de jure independent sovereign state,” especially now that its voters had participated in national elections. “We are relatives and neighbors. But the People’s Republic has never had any authority over us. The people of Taiwan would be unhappy if Beijing exercised its authority here.”

Ms. Lu doesn’t mind being called “scum” by Beijing. “Twenty years ago I was called worse names by the government here,” she said. “In two days I will be vice president because the people of Taiwan have always agreed with me.”

Ms. Lu’s views are identical with those of Taiwan’s previous president, Lee Teng-hui. In early November 1997 he told me, “Taiwan is an independent sovereign country.” This would have to be recognized if he went to Beijing where, he said, “I would go only on the basis of complete equality. I would call Jiang Zemin ‘Chairman,’ and he would call me ‘President.”’

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It is common for Americans alarmed by Ms. Lu to suggest that President Chen has tried to distance himself from her claims, which she denies. But his presidential address was in fact far more eloquent about Taiwan’s differences with the Mainland than President Lee and Ms. Lu were in using the blunt words “sovereign state.” There was even a passage which can be described as impudent. Three times at the beginning of his address Mr. Chen said, “Taiwan stands up.” This was a plain reference to one of Mao’s most famous remarks, “The Chinese people have stood up,” made the week before his proclamation of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949. Equally startling was Mr. Chen’s use, several times, of the Portuguese term for Taiwan, Formosa (or “beautiful”). This could be construed as a colonial usage, but Mr. Chen emphasized that “each citizen of Formosa is a ‘child of Taiwan’ just like me. Taiwan will be like a selfless, loving mother.” In his conclusion the new president referred to “Taiwan—our eternal mother.”

Mr. Chen made plain Taiwan’s differences with the Mainland. During the past century or more, he said, “China has suffered imperialist aggression, which left indelible wounds in her history.” He then turned to Taiwan’s own history as it is now described in local school textbooks, pointing out that its “destiny has been even more arduous, tormented by brute force and the rule of colonialist regimes.” When I discussed the speech with one of its drafters before the inauguration, he noted that an earlier draft had specified that the four hundred years of torment were at the hands of, successively, Portugal, Holland, the Ching Dynasty, and Japan—which took over Taiwan from the Ching in 1895 and restored it to China in 1945—and of the Mainland regime of Chiang Kai-shek, which established its capital in Taipei after the Communist victory in 1949. Since this reference to Mainland rule as “colonialist” would be regarded as insulting to the Kuomintang, some of whose members are in Mr. Chen’s coalition cabinet, and a provocation of China, it was decided to drop any specific references to it. It was galling enough to Beijing for Mr. Chen to claim that Taiwan had suffered more than the Mainland, which ceaselessly refers to its century of humiliation at the hands of foreigners.

The drafter drew my attention to two of Mr. Chen’s most significant appointments. Since 1949, when President Chiang carried it with him from the Mainland, Taiwan has been the site of the imperial art collection, once housed in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and arguably the greatest collection of its kind in the world. Now, for the first time, its director is a Taiwanese. So is the new director of the national archive. Two of the most powerful symbols of Chinese culture, therefore, are now under the charge of the “native-born.” In the most profound sense, as Mr. Chen said, he has “taken up the great responsibility of leading the country.”

The “two sides,” Mr. Chen said—always skating around the words “independent” and “sovereign”—may share some ancestral, cultural, and historical characteristics, but they have been separated so long that they have “vastly different political systems and lifestyles.” He spelled these out. The Mainland, “under the leadership of Mr. Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang Zemin” (polite usages, rare in Taiwan, which avoid official titles such as “senior leader” for Deng and “president” for Jiang) has “created a miracle of economic openness.” Fair enough. But in Taiwan, Mr. Chen observed, equally fairly, not only is there a “miracle economy,” but “we have created the political marvel of democracy.” There is no reason, however, Mr. Chen said, why “in a peaceful atmosphere of reconciliation, which respects free choice on both sides, the two sides cannot contribute to the peace and prosperity of the Asia Pacific Region.” Annette Lu told me that she foresaw the possibility of an “Asian Community,” rather like its European counterpart. Neither she nor Mr. Chen, however, sees such cooperation as leading to the People’s Republic including Taiwan under Beijing’s rule.

Mr. Chen did not underestimate the difficulties of even limited cooperation. He invoked traditional language that would be familiar to many in his audience who have received a traditional education, while probably passing over the heads of most Mainlanders, especially the generals who continually threaten Taiwan with war. “A benevolent government,” he said, quoting Confucius, “will please those near and appeal to those from afar,” and “when those afar will not submit, then one must practice kindness and virtue to attract them.”

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Taiwan has been transformed since 1949, and Americans can feel proud that the island is indeed a triumph of economic and democratic development, where any Westerner can feel at home. It is also riddled with corruption, with the use of “black gold,” or political bribes, so common a practice that President Chen got his most enthusiastic applause when he said his government will “crack down on ‘black gold politics.”’

When I was a student there in the late Fifties, Taiwan was a Leninist state propped up by secret police, infamous for the torture, imprisonment, and murder of dissidents—most of them Taiwanese—and with a captive press. Even foreigners looked over their shoulders before speaking. The Robbins Island of Taiwan, Green Island, was a terrifying and usually unmentionable detention center for Chiang Kai-shek’s enemies; now it is advertised widely as a beach resort. For a Taiwanese population of some 23 million, there are now four hundred newspapers of every political stripe, some of them scurrilously attacking well-known figures such as Annette Lu, others advocating union with the Mainland as soon as possible. There are literally thousands of magazines. The last election was fair to all sides; indeed Mr. Chen received just 39 percent of the vote, winning only because of a split in his opposition that led him to include KMT members in his cabinet. Some of his top generals still dream of reunification and Mr. Chen, wholly inexperienced, will have to win them over.

He will also have trouble getting the Mainland to talk with him on anything other than its own terms. A Taiwanese political analyist suggested that Mr. Chen is in a position not unlike that of Richard Nixon when he journeyed to Moscow and Beijing. Like Mr. Nixon, no one can charge Mr. Chen with being soft on communism. And like Mr. Nixon, too, he knows it is important for his own political future, not to say regional peace, that he reduce the chances of violent conflict.

There is something ironic about the defeat of the Kuomintang. It reminds me a bit of the electorate’s dismissal of Winston Churchill in 1945 after he had done so much for Britain. Originally authoritarian, imitating indeed its Communist enemies—Chiang Kai-shek thought that lax discipline had brought about his defeat and exile to Taiwan—the KMT seemed immutable. Very slowly, though, year by year, encouraged by Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Jing-kuo—whom Chiang had sent to study in the Soviet Union in the Thirties and who had a Russian wife—Taiwanese began entering the government at the lowest levels and equally slowly advancing to senior positions. Many of these had liberal American educations. (Annette Lu is a graduate of Harvard Law School.) In 1986 the KMT declared that opposition parties—some of whose leading members had been assassinated, even abroad, and imprisoned—could run for local office.

During these years some of the worst persecution of dangwai, or non-KMT leaders, took place, Chiang Jing-kuo designated as his successor Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese educated in Japan, whose Japanese was more fluent than his Mandarin Chinese, the official language of Taiwan. It was Lee who brought about the two national elections, in the second of which the KMT was defeated. What brought the KMT down was not its encouragement of democracy and Lee’s advocacy of Taiwan as a sovereign state—both of which are generally supported on Taiwan—but its corruption. The champions of democracy became its victims.

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Can Taiwan’s present become China’s future? I think not. The best book comparing the two regimes, Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties by Professor Bruce Dickson of George Washington University,* points out that the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on violence, which enables it to crush any political opposition, makes it impossible for alternative political groups to try their hand at exercising power. This has become more rather than less severe since the Tiananmen events of 1989. All attempts to share even slivers of power are rejected and people who advocate elementary rights are said to be reenacting the Cultural Revolution. The KMT, by contrast, spent years negotiating with a moderate opposition. Even though the party was Leninist in conception, it never had the nearly totalitarian control that the Communist Party did. “If democracy comes to China,” Professor Dickson concludes, “it is more likely to be after the breakdown of the present regime and the creation of a new one, rather than the result of continuous regime change as occurred in Taiwan. Democracy may come to China, but it is not likely to come to the PRC.”

  1. Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1997. See my review in The New York Review, August 13, 1998.