It was the type of whistle-stop Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian has experienced countless times in the past. On March 19, the final day of campaigning in a close and bitterly fought presidential election, loyalists lined a narrow street in the southern city of Tainan, near Chen's birthplace, brandishing the green flags of his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and shooting off celebratory fireworks. Chen and his running mate, Annette Lu, waved cheerfully from the back of an open-topped, cherry red campaign jeep emblazoned with a large numeral 1.
Suddenly, someone in the crowd, taking advantage of the noise and smoke, shot at the candidates. At least two rounds were fired from an unidentified weapon—possibly a homemade firearm. One penetrated the jeep's windshield. Chen didn't realize he had been hit and continued waving and calling to the crowd until blood started seeping through his gray windbreaker. His jeep screeched off to a hospital, where Chen declined a medical bed and walked to an isolated part of the emergency room. There, doctors applied 20 stitches and 12 sutures to a deep, 11-cm-long graze below Chen's navel. The President was impressively calm—his heart rate was a normal 84 beats per minute and blood pressure was 142/72 mm Hg. It was only a subsequent CAT scan that detected a bullet slug caught between his windbreaker and shirt. "If I hadn't turned my body around a bit," Chen told a doctor, "the bullet could have gone directly through me." (A bullet also grazed Vice President Lu's right knee.) Within six hours, the two were back in the capital, Taipei. Chen, who is known by the nickname "A-Bian," went on television to announce calmly, "A-Bian won't be knocked down by a bullet."
If you can consider a gunshot to the belly lucky, Chen seemed doubly fortunate in Tainan. His wound was minor, and the attack apparently clinched him the election by giving him a shot of sympathy, too. When the ballots were counted, the Chen-Lu tandem had squeaked in with only 50.1% of the vote—a margin of just 29,518 out of some 12.9 million votes tallied. Given the narrowness of Chen's victory, and the questions surrounding the attack on him—who was behind it and why—the rival electoral team of Lien Chan and James Soong challenged the result. "This election was unfair," Lien announced to thousands of cheering supporters as he refused to concede defeat. Many of his supporters had claimed that Chen staged the attack, and Lien raised his own doubts: "Until now we still haven't received a clear explanation of the shooting incident." He said he would petition the courts to invalidate the result and ask for a recount.
Choosing to ignore the controversy, Chen and Lu, who leaned heavily on a crutch, appeared before 10,000 jubilant supporters outside DPP election headquarters. "From now on," Chen said, "we must all embrace each other, creating a harmonious and unified new Taiwan." But six hours later, Lien and Soong led several thousand outraged loyalists to an indefinite sit-in outside the President's office.
The 2004 election has challenged the island's young democracy like no event before: first, with an attempted political assassination, then with a wafer-thin margin of victory, and now with protesters on the streets of Taipei. A recount, which seems likely, could take weeks and might trigger protracted legal wrangling. Even if the election result stands, the shared outrage of Chen's opponents could keep them together in opposition—rather than disintegrating in defeat—blocking initiatives that Chen may have planned in advance, especially toward China. Chen is under pressure from Taiwan's business community to establish some sort of working relationship with Beijing. He had hoped that a stronger mandate would allow him to engage Beijing on his own terms—indeed, in his victory speech, he asked China to "accept the democratic decision of the Taiwanese people." But that call by Chen immediately rang hollow not only with the mandarins across the Taiwan Strait but with roughly half his own people.
Hours after polling stations closed, China's leaders had yet to comment on Chen's re-election or Lien's challenge. China hates Chen, whom it considers a dangerous proponent of independence for what it regards as a renegade province. When he ran for the presidency four years ago, Beijing excoriated the former human-rights lawyer and ramped up its threats to invade Taiwan if unduly provoked. Sniping worked for Chen in that election campaign, too: Beijing's attacks helped him win a tight, three-person race. Since then, Chen has stoked up the pressure by insisting Taiwan is a sovereign nation and stressing the island's right to self-determination. (Two referendums Chen held on polling day last week were a similar jab: they asked voters whether Taiwan should boost its military preparedness if China does not renounce the right to use force against the island, and if Taipei should engage in talks with Beijing. In the end, less than half the electorate voted, rendering the referendums invalid, which Beijing did remark upon, gloatingly.) Chen's belief is that Taiwan must stand up for itself before the mainland gets overwhelmingly powerful on the world stage.
If his election victory is upheld—and he manages to assuage his rivals—Chen will have four more years to pursue that agenda. In Beijing, where top officials seldom refer to him by name or acknowledge his presidency, he's now likely to meet with greater distrust than ever—many on the mainland will be tempted to assume that the shooting incident was merely a dirty trick of his. There are other reasons, too, for Beijing to be displeased with the election. The dramatic television pictures of protesters in the streets make Taiwan look divided. Yet the island has, in fact, undergone a major shift, with political opponents drawing closer together in their attitudes toward the mainland. Lien's opposition Kuomintang (KMT), allied with Soong's People First Party, wooed voters by promising stability for Taiwan's economy and a greater chance of dealing with Beijing productively. But to avoid a total rout, the pair were forced to follow Chen's lead into some significant U-turns in their own China policy. By the time people entered the polling booths on Saturday, Taiwan's entire political establishment had come to a near consensus on the island's essential—make that existential—issue. Reunification—which Beijing insists upon, and which Taiwan reluctantly accepted for years, albeit as a distant inevitability—is never going to be allowed if the voters of Taiwan and their elected leaders have any say in the matter. Taiwan isn't going the way of Hong Kong or Macau.
political violence of the kind seen last Friday is rare in Taiwan. But the geopolitics around the Taiwan Strait over the past half-century have been filled with conflict. It's a weird cold war, in which the rhetoric is often divorced from reality and the quibbling can seem Lilliputian—while the threats are anything but. China has 496 short-range missiles along its eastern coast pointed directly at Taiwan, and it regularly threatens to fire them. It recently announced a boost in military spending of 11.6%, and left no doubt that the money would be used to prepare for a possible showdown with the island.
How did the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland get so dysfunctional? In a sense, it was always that way. Taiwan was the booby prize in China's civil war. In 1949, the losing KMT forces of Chiang Kai-shek, 1 million-strong, packed up much of China's bullion and art treasures and decamped to the island known to the world as Formosa to establish a government-in-exile. Chiang's Republic of China claimed to be the government of both Taiwan and the mainland and was given scant chance of survival until the U.S. became its protector during the Korean War.
The situation was relatively clear-cut until U.S. President Jimmy Carter formally recognized the People's Republic in 1979 and the U.S. broke official relations with Taiwan. That's when Taiwan's international status went into a diplomatic hall of mirrors, from which it has yet to escape. Every American President since Carter has gone out of his way to assure Beijing that the U.S. acknowledges a "one China" policy—in other words, that Taiwan has no legitimate reason to exist independently. And yet American support and arms sales are the main guarantees that Beijing won't gobble up Taipei. Taiwan has functioned as an independent country for 55 years, but China won't allow anyone to admit to it. Beijing stridently insists on the maintenance of what it calls the status quo—which refers not to Taiwan's de facto independence but its claim of being a government-in-exile for all of China (although Taiwan formally abandoned that stance in 1991). Beijing has warned it could invade if Taiwan declares formal independence by, say, holding a referendum on sovereignty issues. China doesn't allow planes to fly from Taipei to Beijing or ships to sail directly across the strait because that would be a right afforded to an independent country. And yet Taiwan's businessmen are welcome to own and operate shoe or microchip factories on the mainland, which they do to the tune of an estimated $100 billion in investment.
For years Taiwan went along with the charade—and its official policy was that reunification with the mainland was inevitable, though hopefully not for eons. In 1995, Chen's predecessor Lee Teng-hui began rocking the boat. The U.S. let him visit his alma mater Cornell University to give a speech, and Beijing literally went ballistic: it fired unarmed missiles into waters north of Taiwan. Into this combustible scenario stepped Chen—a man who has shown an even greater willingness to antagonize the mainland. Since taking office, Chen has pushed self-determination for Taiwan still further, although with some strategic whitewashes of his own. He says he would never declare independence, but he declares that Taiwan is a sovereign, independent state at the drop of a hat. As the 2004 election drew near, he called for the referendum that Beijing feared would set a precedent for future votes on sovereignty, and declared that Taiwan needed a new constitution.
Chen's nationalistic China-baiting was good politics, but it's also part of a personal mission. He told Time in an interview last month that he considers himself a figure "who creates new chapters in history"—an ominous indication to Beijing that he's now gearing up for more epochal tussles over Taiwan's sovereignty issues. Infuriating as this may be, "China will have to deal with Chen," insists DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-kim, "if it wants to deal with Taiwan at all." But that's a big if. First, Chen needs his election victory validated. Then, even if he backpedals at the start of his second term, China is unlikely to respond. Chen has already announced his intention to rewrite the constitution if re-elected: he wants to submit the issue of constitutional reform for approval by a national referendum in 2006 and complete the document in 2008—the year of the Beijing Olympics, a moment when China cannot afford to attack Taiwan. Chen says the exercise isn't meant to promote independence but to deal with such issues as lowering the voting age. That's not how Beijing, or just about anyone else, sees his plan. "A new constitution would signal clearly that Taiwan has nothing to do with China," says Chao Chien-min, a political scientist at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
If there is no change in the election result, the KMT will have lost two presidential polls in a row, and will be at risk of becoming a political dinosaur, further strengthening Chen's hand. In the meantime, though, it can challenge the election result, make life hard for Chen in the legislature, carp about his failed referendums, and try to regroup in time for the December legislative election. Still, there is one thing nobody will underestimate about the President after last week's electoral drama: his survival skills.