At a temple in Tainan County, a banner welcomes native son Chen Shui-bian home after his successful bid for re-election in 2004.
March 22, 2004
It's all over but the crying. The presidential election in Taiwan is finished, the votes have been counted, and – unless Taiwan's high court rules otherwise – Chen Shui-bian, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will be sworn in for a second term in May.
In winning a second term, Chen and his vice-president, Annette Lu, have defeated the pro-unification forces of Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) leader Lien Chan and his running mate, James Soong.
Even before the failed assassination attempt on the lives of Chen and Lu, this closely fought battle had grabbed the world's attention because of one key issue: Taiwan's relationship with China. Now both the Taiwanese and the outside world are asking, "How will Chen's re-election affect that relationship?"
But to honestly answer that question, you first have to ask, "What was the relationship like before the election?"
The standard line is that Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war in China, when Chiang Kai-shek's KMT forces lost to Mao Zedong's Communist forces. Mao formed the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, while Taiwan and it's surrounding islands became the last bastion of the KMT's Republic of China (ROC). Today, Beijing insists that the two entities on either side of the Taiwan Strait are part of "one China" that must be reunified – by force if necessary.
The reality is a little more complicated.
But it's enough to say that Taiwan has not always been part of China, and it has never been part of the PRC. For many years the KMT government seemed to have a "mutual understanding" with Beijing that kept the two sides at peace and allowed Taiwan to act as a sovereign state: an agreement in principle that there was one China, of which both Taiwan and the mainland were a part. In the KMT's mythology, this is what has become known as “the 1992 Consensus."
Conventional wisdom has it that the relationship has cooled considerably since Chen the sovereigntist took office in the year 2000. But conventional wisdom can be like an old wives' tale: just because you keep saying it doesn't make it true.
It's true that Taiwan and China have not had any of the unofficial talks that took place during the KMT's reign – the kind of "family meetings" that allowed China and Taiwan to live in peace even if they couldn't agree on living together. And it's also true that Chen has alarmed, frustrated and angered Beijing by declaring that Taiwan already is a sovereign nation and therefore has no need for a "declaration of independence."
But it must be noted that the cooling trend began long before Chen and the DPP took office in 2000. The relationship reached a nadir in 1999 – almost a year before Chen took office – when former KMT president Lee Tung-hui stated that Taiwan and China enjoyed a "special state-to-state relationship."
Beijing leaders responded to that pronouncement with bile and venom. They condemned Lee as a "separatist," suspended all discussions with Taipei, and again raised the spectre of a war to “reunify” Taiwan with the motherland. And they have done the same again with Chen Shui-bian.
Shortly after becoming president, Chen did offer olive branches to Beijing; but all his overtures were either flatly refused or ignored. Beijing and the pro-unification forces in Taiwan blame Chen for not recognizing the "one China" principle. Chen and the pro-sovereignty forces blame Beijing for refusing to treat Taiwan as an equal partner in any discussions.
In the past four years, there has been a lot of finger-wagging and showing of teeth from Beijing, but not as much sabre-rattling as in the past. And despite his provocative talk of sovereignty, Chen has shown himself to be a skilled political realist who knows how to push China's buttons without going too far.
So, while things have not improved under Chen's tenure, they're not really any worse.
Both sides hoped this election would be a watershed. Chen wanted a mandate for changes that would solidify Taiwan's identity as a separate and sovereign nation. Beijing on other hand, wanted rid of Chen and supported KMT Leader Lien Chan so that both sides could get back to talking about one China.
In this election, neither side got what it really wanted. Chen got re-elected by pushing the sovereignty issue, but with no real mandate for the kind of radical changes that independence would imply. And China must face the fact that the Taiwanese people have again chosen Chen and wish to be "maitres chez nous."
So the question now becomes, "What will the two sides do differently – what must they do differently – this time?"
The answer to the first part of that question is that nobody really knows.
The optimistic view, the hopeful view, is that Chen's election to a second term changes everything. Another man, backed by powerful business interests, might have made a deal with China that would have traded Taiwan's sovereignty for peace and prosperity. But this one will not, so China will realize it must now get over its distaste for separatists and deal with Chen.
Chen, having barely won an election he was supposed to lose, will reach out confidently and peacefully to China. He will make new overtures that Beijing – acting in enlightened self-interest – will respond to, so that growing economic ties between the two countries can proceed and both sides can continue to prosper in peace.
The skeptical view, some would say the realistic view, is that the election in Taiwan changes nothing. Beijing's policy toward Taiwan comes from decisions made inside the world of Chinese politics. There are both hawks and doves in Beijing, but the wind beneath their wings is the same: unification with Taiwan. There is not that much a president of Taiwan – especially an independence-minded president like Chen – can do about that.
Proponents of both views agree on the answer to the second part of the question: Chen now has the responsibility of making it easier for the "doves" in China to succeed. In other words, maybe he can't make Beijing change its mind and he can't make the leaders talk – but he can and must make them willing and able to talk.
That means toning down the independence rhetoric that makes the hawks want to pounce. It also means giving the doves some face, so that it doesn't look like they're giving up on the "one China" principle if they meet with Chen. Then and only then can any progress be made on key issues such as trade between the two countries.
Can any president do this and still make the Taiwanese feel that they are "maitres chez nous"?
If anybody can, Chen can. In the last four years, and again in this election campaign, he has proven himself to be a skilled political realist as well as a charismatic leader. But more importantly Chen – as the assassination attempt showed – is a survivor. He can take a bullet for the team and still come out alive.
Stephen A. Nelson is a Canadian freelance writer and broadcaster now living in Toronto.
In 2000, two bitter rivals from the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang or KMT) — Lien Chan and James Soong – had fought each other to become the KMT's presidential candidate. When Soong failed to get what he considered to be his by right, he split from the KMT – taking his supporters with him. The KMT, in turn, kicked him out of the party and said the same would happen for any of his supporters.
The very public and nasty split in the party resulted in the vote being split.
The “outcast” James Soong placed a close second in the election and nearly won.
The “chosen one” Lien Chan placed a very distant third.
The winner of the election was the dark horse: Chen Shui-bian, a former democracy-rights lawyer from the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Vowing never to let the separatist Chen win again, Lien Chan and James Soong buried the hatchet long enough to run a joint campaign against Chen in 2004. After an extremely acrimonious election campaign, Chen won again – this time by a razor thin margin in the popular vote.
The victory came just one day after an apparent assassination attempt on the lives of Chen and his running mate, Vice President Annette Lu. Chen and Lu were both wounded by bullets fired at them while they were travelling in an open motorcade.
On election night, Lien, Soong and their supporters rallied in streets of Taipei. They charged that the election had been stolen, the voting had been rigged, and that Chen had faked his own assassination attempt.
Lien and Soong vowed never to accept the results. They led a month-long series of protests designed to produce a "people power" coup. At the same time, they challenged the election results in the courts.
When this story was written – just days after the election, their case was still before the courts. Of course, the courts threw out the challenges, saying there was no evidence to support their accusations.
That didn't stop Lien, Soong and their supporters from orchestrating a campaign to depose Chien Shui-bian, calling on him to "step down." It's a campaign that lasted until the 2008 presidential election campaign won by the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou. It's a campaign Ma won with the help and support of Lien and Soong.
But now that Chen has actually "stepped down" at the end of his term, the accusation that he staged an assassination attempt on his own life continues to be an albatross that the KMT hangs around his neck.