Beijing Casts a Ballot

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Taiwan elections get on the nerves of China's communist leaders. In 1996 Beijing shot missiles into the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to scare voters away from then-presidential candidate Lee Teng-hui. Result? A double aircraft-carrier warning from the United States and a landslide victory for Lee. Now, with the election of Lee's successor just three weeks away, Beijing may be making the same mistake again. In a White Paper released last Monday stating its official position on Taiwan, the Chinese government threatened drastic measures, including military force if Taipei indefinitely delayed reunification talks. Suddenly Asia's deadliest triangle--Beijing, Washington, Taipei--is crackling anew with high-voltage tension. Beijing has clearly upped the ante: previously it had threatened to invade only if Taiwan declared independence or was occupied by a foreign power. Washington is wary. Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott had just left Beijing after urging Chinese leaders to exercise restraint over Taiwan. They weren't listening. We don't think those threats are helpful, said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. The aircraft carriers have not been sent out, at least not yet, but Bacon added: We'll watch this situation very closely. In Taiwan, the White Paper is being seen as a crude attempt to scare voters away from the independence-minded candidate Chen Shui-bian. As before, the tactic may backfire on Beijing when Taiwan holds elections on March 18. China always makes a mistake thinking it can manipulate democracies, says David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

The White Paper reflects the ambition and impatience of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who apparently hopes to secure a place in history by beginning the process of reunification with Taiwan. Jiang wants to come up with a framework for a solution, if not the solution itself, says Tien Hung-mao, head of the Institute for National Policy Research in Taipei. We get a sense of urgency there. But bullying Taiwan may not be Jiang's best strategy. Taiwanese are proud of their democratic freedoms. The current election campaign, with its noisy rallies and robust political debate, only serves to remind people of how different their society is from the mainland's. Most Chinese leaders imagine Taiwan as a mirror image of China, with a central government, power flowing down, says Lin Chong-pin of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. They need to learn more about the role of public opinion on our leadership.

Beijing's strident tone has also antagonized Washington--and may embolden certain members of the U.S. Congress who hope to increase arms sales to Taiwan. Even lawmakers with no reputation for hawkishness on China have hit out at the White Paper. Many of us are surprised by the bluntness and inappropriateness of this particular challenge, says Senator John Kerry, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. Some in Washington say Beijing's stern words could erode support for the approval of China's World Trade Organization status,which the Clinton Administration is now trying to push through Congress.
But even as military concerns rise and the Taipei stock market falls, the election campaign is carrying on with vigor. All three main candidates have rejected Beijing's threats as unwelcome interference in a political process that the mainland doesn't understand. The strongest reaction has come from James Soong, a former stalwart of the ruling Kuomintang (kmt) who is fighting for votes with one hand as he tries to fend off corruption allegations with the other. We won't be intimidated, said Soong, who was born on the mainland and is at pains to dispel a reputation for being pro-Beijing. The Taiwanese people are not afraid to negotiate, but they will not agree to negotiate out of fear.

Educated at Berkeley and Georgetown, Soong started out in politics as secretary to former President Chiang Ching-kuo and rose under Lee Teng-hui to become governor of Taiwan province, overseeing the administration of the island. He proved to be an effective governor--he gave speeches in the local Taiwanese dialect--and soon began to top surveys as the island's most popular politician. His success persuaded him to aim higher--too high, in the eyes of his party. Soong, 57, likes to tell the story of a golf outing in the U.S. last year, when a caddy noticed that his putter was engraved with Gerald Ford's name. The caddy asked about its origins. When Soong told him that he had been governor of Taiwan and the ex-President had personally given the club to him, the caddy asked what Soong planned to do next. I told him many people wanted me to run for president, and that my popularity rating was high in the polls, but that I knew I wouldn't be nominated by my party. The caddy asked: 'What kind of a party is that?'

The answer is a party that has not welcomed any challengers as it has jealously held on to power for more than half a century. President Lee, suspicious of Soong's pro-Beijing leanings, wanted Lien Chan to succeed him. Soong leapt into the wolves' den by declaring he would run anyway. Soon after he declared his candidacy in mid-July, Soong began to soar in the polls. But in December kmt legislator Yang Chi-hsiung alleged that Soong had diverted $12 million from a kmt slush fund to his own account. His ratings plummeted. Soong says he was set up; he claims that President Lee had given him the money for party business, including an amount earmarked for the care of former President Chiang's family. I was working closely with the President, he says. This money didn't belong to me. Soong's ratings have tumbled from around 40% to 26%, according to the latest polls, which put Chen Shui-bian at 25% and Lien Chan at 21%.

By far the most charismatic campaigner among the three top candidates, Soong bonds with his audiences, cracking jokes about his opponents and enduring with a smile the crush of people wanting to shake his hand when he leaves the stage. But behind the smile no doubt is deep concern that he will not be able to shake off the embezzlement charge. Soong, who has spent his life dealing in power, people and politics, knows all too well what the kmt machine is capable of.

So does Chen Shui-bian, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (dpp), who has been on the receiving end of kmt power for years. The 49-year-old lawyer saw the kmt's dirty tactics when he was defending their pro-democracy foes in the 1980s. His wife was maimed in a car accident that he claims was orchestrated by the kmt. Chen has made corruption in the ruling party a major theme of his campaign. At one rally, he had a motorcyclist crash through a paper barrier bearing the characters for black gold--the term used in Taiwan for under-the-table payments. He also criticizes the kmt's use of gangsters to get out the vote. Chen is nothing if not direct. After a recent campaign speech to business leaders at Changhua, about 200 km south of Taipei, Chen said, Changhua county is one of the most gangster-ridden in Taiwan. He says local thugs actively buy votes, bribing people by offering them tours of Taipei with stays in five-star hotels.

Chen, who is often referred to by his diminutive, A-bian, is the most colorful of the candidates. As mayor of Taipei from 1994 to '98, he was known to dress up as Peter Pan, Santa Claus or Superman to attract publicity. His current campaign tune is a rap song, and his campaign offices sell A-bian hats--green woolen caps with a cartoon-man on the side--for $3 (making him that rare candidate who can get away with charging for his promotional material). His public antics are calculated to display just enough self-parody to make him the common man's hero, and he repeatedly reminds his audience that he comes from a poor family and did not, like Soong and Lien, receive an expensive foreign education. In Changhua, he tells a rally: I am the only real son of sweet potatoes, a humorous term people in Taiwan use to describe themselves.

Chen is the only one among the main candidates who was born in Taiwan. He has worked hard to change his image from firebrand independence advocate to someone who can deal firmly but responsibly with Beijing without provoking its wrath. He favors dropping Taiwan's ban on direct shipping and air links with the mainland, and he hopes to increase two-way trade and investment. Concerned that Chen might win, representatives of the mainland's principal negotiator on Taiwan, Wang Daohan, recently opened informal contacts with Chen's aides to ascertain where he really stands on cross-Strait issues, according to sources in Chen's campaign.

But he is still Beijing's least favored candidate. Although last week's White Paper didn't mention Chen by name, he was clearly the main target of the attack. Chen's camp, however, was delighted at the opportunity to tap into public resentment at Beijing's bullying tactics. Taiwanese people will not choose their leader under pressure, said Chen, adding cheekily, we would happily sit down just to have some tea and candies with Beijing.

The candidate with the most to lose from the White Paper policy statement is the man Beijing would perhaps most like to see win: kmt candidate Lien Chan. Lien, born in China to a Taiwanese father, has been positioning himself as the safe choice, the experienced technocrat who knows how to say just enough to make Beijing happy without changing the status quo. A former Vice President and Prime Minister who has held two other ministerial posts, his reaction to China's threats was more measured than those of the other two candidates. The two sides have come up with different interpretations of the 'one-China policy,' he told supporters in Hualien. In the future we can continue negotiations, but at this point we can only go on in our own way.

Lien, 63, is essentially the default candidate. Seen as stiff and patrician, he has consistently trailed in the polls. But his campaign managers are calculating that, with Soong injured by the corruption scandal and with many voters concerned about Chen's radical reputation, Lien can win the plurality he needs for the presidency. The former diplomat has fewer enemies than the other candidates, and when voters are asked who they think will win (as opposed to whom they will vote for) most point to Lien. People love or hate Soong and Chen, says Antonio Chiang, editor of the Taipei Times. They may make fun of Lien, but nobody hates him. Beijing's recent rhetoric, however, may make the safe choice less palatable to prickly Taiwanese voters.

Still, Lien has the considerable resources of the kmt machine to rely on. His public manner is becoming more relaxed as the campaign progresses. And with his bold promise in January to hand over the party's sprawling business empire--with assets of as much as $20 billion--to a public trust, Lien has stolen part of the reform platform from the other candidates. When asked about claims that his party is using gangsters to get out the vote, Lien shoots back: Give me specifics. Who, what, when, where? You cannot just accuse blindly.

There has been a surfeit of accusations in Taiwan's characteristically rough-and-tumble campaign. James Soong allegedly used embezzled money to buy a condo in Hawaii and property in San Francisco. Chen Shui-bian is said to have engaged in under-the-table dealings with a Malaysian business group to set up a lottery in Taipei when he was mayor. Lien Chan is accused of evading taxes on his father's estate and being involved in financing a legislator's illegal land speculation scheme.

It is all colorful stuff, part of the messy learning curve of democracy with a free press and the beginnings of political transparency and accountability. But it doesn't fit Jiang Zemin's grand vision of a reunited motherland presided over by a single party. Jiang may hope to force the two parts of China together, but Taiwan's elections and Beijing's White Paper only underline how far the two sides have drifted apart.