»  National Review Online

March 22nd, 2004

  The Taiwan Tango (Continued)

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Saturday's presidential election in Taiwan has led to an unseemly Florida-200-type wrangle, with the losing candidate demanding the result be annulled. Incumbent President Chen Shui-bian's margin of victory was 30,000 votes out of 13 million cast; the number of spoilt ballots was nearly 340,000. There are no hanging chads in this case — the voters of Taiwan mark their preferences on slips of paper, which are counted by hand — but there is legitimate doubt about the true election result none the less. Taiwan's courts will ultimately rule on the issue, but until they do President Chen can claim no more than a provisional victory.

The election's outcome is further blurred by the very peculiar shooting incident last Friday. Both President Chen and Vice President Annette Lu were shot while campaigning together, though their wounds turned out to be superficial. They were, in fact, so superficial that there is widespread doubt as to whether any real shooting took place. A single bullet, later found lodged in Chen's clothing, is supposed to have inflicted both wounds. Nobody heard the gun fire, though, as celebratory firecrackers were being let off all around. Nor, at the time of writing, has anyone been arrested for the shooting — a very odd thing, as it occurred in a densely crowded street. Then, instead of being attended at a nearby public hospital, Chen and Lu were taken to a private hospital further away, one not on the "approved" list of the President's Secret Service detail. There is widespread suspicion that the whole thing was staged by Chen's people to win sympathy votes. Second most popular theory is that the shooting was carried out, or staged (i.e. with Chen's foreknowledge) by crime syndicates — millions of dollars had been bet, illegally, on the election outcome.

All this can be put down to the rawness of a new democracy. Until the presidential election of four years ago, Taiwan was firmly in the grip of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, which came over with Chiang Kai-shek's armies after WW2. (Taiwan was a Japanese colony 1895-1945.) The KMT successfully broadened its appeal in the 1990s under the leadership of Taiwan-born President Lee Teng-hui, and is no longer merely the party of Chiang Kai-shek's carpetbaggers. In alliance with an agnate faction, the People First Party (PFP), it now forms the "Blue" coalition, which plays the role of the Daddy Party in Taiwan politics — low-tax, low-welfare, pro-business, socially conservative. The victors in Saturday's election were the "Greens": a coalition of Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with a smaller faction founded by Lee Teng-hui after the KMT kicked him out for, as they saw it, opening the door to Chen's 2000 victory. Though not dogmatically "green" in the environmental sense, the Greens play the role of the Mommy Party in Taiwan. Green leaders like President Chen and Vice President Lu would, in the USA, be Democrats; most Blues would be Republicans.*

That is to over-simplify matters somewhat, as there are large issues in Taiwan politics that cannot be mapped into anything equivalent here. There is, for example, corruption, the great plague of public life all over Asia, associated in Taiwan much more with the Blues than the Greens. Because the Blues descend from Chiang Kai-shek's old KMT, which had fifty years of power in which to establish patronage networks and shady business-politics alliances, anti-corruption rhetoric has been a reliable vote-getter for the Greens. This was somewhat less true in Saturday's election than formerly, as President Chen's wife is suspected of recently having made a bundle from insider trading. The Blues played this issue so successfully, Chen was obliged to come out with a qualified public apology on his wife's behalf. A Green counter-attack against Blue leader Lien Chan, based on allegations that he was a wife-beater, sent Lien's wife on a round of teary denials on TV chat shows, and seems not to have influenced voting.

The largest issue of all in Taiwan politics is of course China, the dragon glaring across the Formosa Strait at all these going-on. The Communists in Beijing, backed by the great majority of mainland opinion, regards Taiwan as a renegade province which ought to return to the warm bosom of the Motherland ASAP. The infuriating thing, from Beijing's point of view, is that few Taiwaners in fact want to be united with China. Opinion polls in Taiwan reveal three broad attitudes to the matter: pro-independence, pro-status quo, and pro-unification, breaking about 40-50-10 in normal times. (These numbers change slightly according to the state of Taiwan's economy, with pro-unification sentiment creeping up somewhat in times of recession.) The Blues have all of the pro-unification vote, for what it's worth; the Greens have a lock on the pro-independence vote; elections like Saturday's are fought for the status quo voters.

President Chen's need to keep a grip on his pro-independence "base" is what got him into trouble with the US administration last December. As well as voting for a president on Saturday, Taiwan voters were invited to register an opinion in two referendums. The referendum questions** concerned strengthening the island nation's missile defenses and being more assertive about negotiations with China. It was the proposal for these referendums that got the Administration's attention back in December, and led to George W. Bush, trying to enlist Beijing's help with North Korea at the time, rapping Chen over the knuckles. The Blues urged a boycott of the referendums (whose wording has been slightly toned down since the December contretemps). A large part of the electorate agreed, enough to prevent affirmation of either measure.

Closely connected with the China issue is the matter of Taiwan's constitution. The present form of that document is a patched-up version of the one Chiang Kai-shek used as a fig-leaf for his, then his son's, authoritarian dictatorship, 1947-87. It specifies a bicameral legislature, for instance: but the structure of the upper house was based on the fiction that Taiwan was actually "The Republic of China," with representatives from all mainland China's provinces. Since no-one could agree on how to modify this structure to Taiwan's actual present-day circumstances, this upper house has been effectively suspended since 1997. The lower house, the Legislative Yuan, is the actual law-making body. There are, however, structural problems there, too, that need attention; and from the Green's point of view the Legislative Yuan suffers from the further defect of being controlled, just barely, by the Blues. (Legislative elections are due in December.)

To settle these matters, Chen has proposed a new constitution, to be submitted to the people in a referendum in 2006, and to take effect at the time of the next presidential election in the spring of 2008. The new constitution, however, is seen by China and the USA as a parcel of high explosive, since it will, as any constitution must, contain some firm definition of what Taiwan actually is. That would blow away the "strategic ambiguity" under which Taiwan has survived and prospered through the post-Mao, post-Chiang period of Chinese history. (Mao and Chiang died within a few months of each other.) It would do so, furthermore, just as China's Communists were about to hold a huge politico-nationalistic orgy to legitimate their rule — the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Will Saturday's election result survive judicial scrutiny? Was Friday's shooting incident for real? If the Blues are ruled the true election victors, will they open talks with China? If not, will Chen's Greens dare to thrust the constitutional issue in Beijing's face right before the 2008 Olympics? Or will China act to pre-empt the issue? How will America's words and deeds affect these issues? The Taiwan tango continues.

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* There is, so far as I know, no conscious allusion here to the circus factions of sixth-century Byzantium:

Constantinople adopted the follies, though not the virtues, of ancient Rome; and the same factions which had agitated the circus, raged with redoubled fury in the hippodrome. Under the reign of Anastasius, this popular frenzy was inflamed by religious zeal; and the greens, who had treacherously concealed stones and daggers under baskets of fruit, massacred, at a solemn festival, three thousand of their blue adversaries …
                    — (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 40.)

** The actual wording of the referendums was:

1.  The people of Taiwan demand that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved through peaceful means. Should mainland China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and refuse to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the government should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities?

2.  Would you agree that our government should engage in negotiation with mainland China on the establishment of a peace and stability framework for cross-strait interactions in order to build consensus and for the welfare of the peoples on both sides?