Beijing is Watching

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ANTHONY SPAETHIf all politics is local, as a grizzled American pol once observed, Chen Shui-bian should have no trouble getting reelected as mayor of Taipei. Over the last four years, Chen has shuttered the capital's sleazy massage parlors and brought down the crime rate. He has opened more parks. His administration is a marvel of efficiency and, most spectacularly, he has unclogged the city's gridlock with new rail lines and bus-only lanes. His approval rating: more than 70%.But in Taiwan's new and vibrant democracy, local politics tends to transcend issues such as parks and bus lanes. If Chen, 47, wins reelection, he will emerge as the strongest contender for the republic's top job when President Lee Teng-hui completes his second and final term two years from now. The significance of that is not merely local or even islandwide, but global. Lee's Kuomintang (KMT), 53 years in power in Taiwan, favors ultimate unification with China, agreed upon between equals, once the mainland adopts democracy. By contrast, Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) campaigns for a separate if amicable relationship with the mainland. The prospect of a DPP-governed Taiwan provokes jitters in Beijing--which is why Chen says he feels honored by media suggestions that he is the individual most feared by China.The neck-and-neck race between Chen and Ma Ying-jeou, 48, a charismatic former Justice Minister in the KMT government, is just one of many key battles in this week's voting. The DPP is also challenging the mayoralty of Kaohsiung, the island's second-largest city. And 225 seats are up for grabs in the main parliamentary body, the Legislative Yuan. If the opposition does well, the KMT could lose its thin majority, possibly propelling Taiwan into an era of fractious politics and coalition governments. These elections will impact Taiwan's direction in the 21st century, predicts Inge Chen, a professor of finance and law at Christian Chung Yuan University. In relations with China, they will influence the next step, as in a game of chess.PAGE 1  |  
Mayor Chen notes that many people are viewing the Taipei race as a dress rehearsal for the presidential election. He seems ready, having earned a reputation as one of the island's foremost heroes in the struggle for democracy. In 1980, the former maritime lawyer helped defend eight activists accused of sedition. After Chen lost a seat on Tainan's city council in 1981, his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was hit by a truck; she is permanently disabled. While Chen spent eight months in jail in the mid-1980s for publishing controversial articles, Wu was elected to the Legislative Yuan on a sympathy vote. He took over her seat three years later. In 1994 he became Taipei's first non-KMT mayor in a generation.Challenger Ma is no less admired. Born in Hong Kong to parents from the mainland and educated at Harvard Law School, he has a shaky command of the Taiwanese dialect and his resume is largely made up of appointments from on high. But as Justice Minister in the mid-1990s, Ma combated corruption, winning popular support while making numerous enemies in the KMT establishment. He resigned last year, announcing that he no longer knew what to fight for or whom to fight for--a comment that irritated President Lee, according to insiders. The handsome politician is supported by voters scared of the DPP's pro-independence stance and those who admire him for standing up to Lee. Ma has been leading in opinion polls, though Chen draws larger crowds and is striking back hard, reminding voters that in the mid-1990s Ma publicly opposed direct presidential elections. Many opposition supporters, in a carryover from martial-law days, are wary of admitting their leanings to pollsters.If Chen is reelected, he insists, he won't abandon the mayoralty for a presidential bid. But two years is a long time in politics. (If Ma wins, he will likely not be the KMT candidate to succeed Lee; other possibles are Vice President Lien Chan and Taiwan provincial Governor James Soong.) Thus, Taipei voters are evaluating the candidates not merely on competence and cleanness, but on how they might deal with the mainland. The labels can be misleading, and China's reaction is fluid. The KMT has abandoned its demand that China be reunified under its control. Now, it argues that China is a divided country made up of two equally legitimate political entities. Reunification would be a long-term process of trust-building contacts, commerce and negotiations. Ma says Chen's pro-independence stance is risky to regional security and stability. Chen, for his part, insists the people of Taiwan, unlike those of Hong Kong, should have the final right to decide their own destiny. But he also accepts the need to negotiate with Beijing. The distinction sounds subtle to an outsider, but not to Chen. There definitely would be a major difference for cross-strait relations if I win, he says--a campaign promise that neither Taiwan nor the mainland is likely to ignore.Reported by Don Shapiro/Taipei  |  2