The writer is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Newsday published this op-ed on March 21, 2000.
Chen Shui-bian has overcome formidable odds to become Taiwan’s next president. His bid was helped by China’s bellicose threats in recent days—which backfired on Beijing by providing Chen a late 10 percent boost and a comfortable margin of victory, although he won a plurality, not majority of the vote. It also shows that all politics are local, as Chen won on a platform that addressed the daily concerns of Taiwanese—the environment, education and economic growth.
While Chen faces the immediate challenges of forming a government of political unity and assuaging Beijing’s fears that he will move the island toward independence, his election should be welcomed by the United States and the world’s democratic nations.
Chen’s personal story is compelling testimony to all aspiring democrats. Born into an impoverished peasant family in rural Taiwan in 1951, Ah-bian as he is known was the best student in his county’s primary and secondary schools—earning himself a place in the prestigious Taiwan National University and a law degree. He labored for two decades in the opposition movement, enduring imprisonment and personal tragedy. A bungled assassination attempt on him, allegedly by government intelligence agents, left his wife paralyzed for life. Chen’s political ascent included service as a Taipei city councilman, a member of the Taiwan legislature and a mayor of Taipei—a post in which he was immensely popular for improving the quality of life of the city and cleaning up corrupt politics.
The election of an opposition politician as Taiwan’s fourth president shows the maturation of Taiwanese democracy. For the first time since 1911, the Nationalist Party no longer rules what is left of the Republic of China. Chen’s victory has finally broken the political machine and money politics of the Nationalists. But more important, it reveals the full flowering of the native Taiwanese identity separate from the Chinese mainlanders who have dominated Taiwan politics for half a century.
This is what so worries the Chinese Communists in Beijing—not only the example that democracy can work in a Chinese context but also the fear that Taiwanese wish to go their own way in the world separate from China. Chen’s immediate test will be to assure Beijing that this is not the case and that his government can work with the mainland to narrow the differences between the two.
Chen’s statements during the campaign have been encouraging in this regard. He jettisoned his past promise of a referendum on independence in favor of negotiations with what he describes as “China.” On the hustings, Chen has offered to visit Beijing personally to begin such negotiations. Last week he designated Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tzu to prepare for such negotiations Lee is one of several intellectuals who defected from the Nationalist Party and government to Chen’s camp in the closing days of the campaign. While he had previously been an open advocate of Taiwan independence, in the last two years Chen has moderated his position and tone on the divisive issue.
Washington should welcome Chen’s victory, as it represents a free and fair democratic election, and should seek to work with his new government. In particular, it should encourage Chen’s overtures to the mainland and an early resumption of cross-strait negotiations within the One China framework. Reiteration of the longstanding American policy of the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan problem directly by the two parties is also appropriate.
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
Director, China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University
Such U.S. statements may help Beijing out of the rhetorical corner it has painted itself into. For the past five years, since China first fired missiles near Taiwan, the cross-strait process has been frozen in suspicion and recrimination. A rare opportunity to bridge differences now exists.Such U.S. statements may help Beijing out of the rhetorical corner it has painted itself into. For the past five years, since China first fired missiles near Taiwan, the cross-strait process has been frozen in suspicion and recrimination. A rare opportunity to bridge differences now exists.
For any progress to be made three things must happen. First, the new government on Taiwan must clearly embrace the One China principle. Without doing so, there is no chance for progress with either Beijing or Washington. Second, China must make the political terms of union far more attractive to Taiwan—by beginning a real process of political liberalization and, ultimately, democratization. Without doing so, Taiwan has no incentive to associate itself with China’s government. Third, the United States must show restraint in its arms sales to Taiwan. It must continue to help maintain the island’s adequate defenses, but it should not sell offensive weapons that will provoke the mainland and trigger an arms race across the strait.
If these three stabilizing moves are undertaken, a process can begin that may, in time, narrow differences and reduce the present dangers. All three governments must contribute to the positive process. Chen’s election offers an opportunity for a fresh start.