In the Line of the Red Dragon's Fire ; `for All Its Faults, Its Tattiness, Its Corruption, Taiwan Is Remarkable: The First Democracy in 5,000 Years of Chinese History'
Ash, Timothy Garton, The Independent (London, England)
THOUSANDS OF red and yellow paper lanterns hang all around the Lungshan temple, their light catching the eyes of the porcelain dragons atop its fantastical gables. In the temple's front courtyard, men and women of all ages queue quietly in order to stand - eyes closed, palms pressed together - under a huge lantern at least six-foot high, whose calligraphic inscription promises peace and safety in the new year.
Yet now the red-faced generals in Peking are talking of war. An official white paper from China's state council threatens "the use of force" if Taiwan is not prepared to enter negotiations about "reunification" with the great motherland. The red dragon is breathing fire. And the reason is clear. For the Lungshan lanterns, which traditionally mark the end of Chinese New Year celebrations, also signal the beginning of a campaign to elect the new president of this extraordinary island just off the coast of mainland China. Portuguese sailors christened it Formosa - the beautiful. We usually associate it with cheap goods "Made in Taiwan". But the anti- communist Kuomintang government that has ruled the place since the late 1940s still officially calls it the Republic of China, and claims it is the true heir to five thousand years of Chinese history.
This wacky, noisy, funny election matters to us because of China's possible reaction to it, and the consequences that might have for the world. Last time the Taiwanese went to the polls to elect a president, in 1996, the Chinese fired missiles over the relatively narrow straits that separate Taiwan from the mainland and the United States sent warships in response. This time round, the US sent a high-level delegation to Peking, mainly to restore relations after Nato's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, but also to try to ensure that nothing like that happens again.
Yet now, something very similar does appear to be happening, as the big brother across the strait shamelessly tries to intimidate the Taiwanese. Curiously, in an interview with The Washington Post published before the Chinese white paper, the ruling Kuomintang's presidential candidate, Lien Chan, warned of the danger of "foreign invasion" if he was not elected. By implication, he was saying to Taiwanese voters: "vote for me, to keep Red China happy."
Now at first glance, this is rather odd. After all, the Kuomintang have been the Communists' arch-enemy ever since the civil war that began between them more than 70 years ago. It was the Kuomintang regime under Chiang Kai-Shek that claimed to be the one true China. It was they who carried off the contents of the Imperial Palace in Peking.
Ruling as a one-party dictatorship, with a brutality that has earned the epithet "white terror," the Kuomintang brought its children up in an extraordinary sort of parallel reality. Though living on this island, schoolchildren were taught almost entirely about the mainland that they could never visit. Instead of talking the local Taiwanese dialect of Chinese, they were compelled to use Mandarin. Instead of local history, they learned about "the beautiful north of our great land".
Yet, while the Communist leaders always object to Taiwan's close ties with America and its old claim to be the one, true China, these are not what makes them really mad. What last summer made Red China furiously denounce the current president, Lee Teng-hui, was his statement that the relations between Taiwan and China are "special state-to-state relations", implying that Taiwan is a separate state as well as being part of some larger, imaginary China. President Lee, fumed the Communist Liberation Army Daily, was "a rat running across the street with everybody shouting `smack it'."
Now his chosen successor, Lien Chan - a distinctly uninspiring former college professor - is playing down the "state-to-state" formula, without abandoning it. "We won't rock the boat," he tells me, in his Washington English. Instead, mindful of popular fears, American concerns, and an estimated $160bn of trade with the mainland, he lays out suggestions for pragmatic improvements in cross-strait relations. These remind me uncannily of the proposals for detente made by politicians of another divided country, Germany, in the 1960s.
Peking's favourite candidate is James Soong, a popular politician who left the Kuomintang in order to stand as an independent. He has recently been hit by Kuomintang allegations that he embezzled $12m dollars from party funds. Many Taiwanese tell me this is a spectacular case of the pot calling the saucepan black, since, they say, corruption inside the Kuomintang regime has long been rampant on a scale that makes a mere $12m look trivial.
Peking's least favourite candidate, Chen Shui-bian, may also be the most important for the consolidation of Taiwanese democracy. The Kuomintang have been in power for more than 50 years now, and if democracy means anything at all, it means that an opposition party does occasionally take over. Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party has unique credentials, stemming directly from the democratic opposition to the Kuomintang dictatorship.
It's one of those parties you encounter in countries after long dictatorships, where every second member seems to have been a political prisoner. Attending a reception given for the visiting Liberal International, I met a congressman who had served almost 12 years in prison. A former party chairman did 25 years. Naturally, they call him "Taiwan's Mandela". "In fact,"one local observer tells me, "this room is full of Mandelas."
Most of these opposition leaders are thus deeply committed to human rights and democracy. But one reason why they have wanted democracy so badly is to realise the aspirations of the Taiwanese majority against the Kuomintang leadership, who were largely Chinese from the mainland. At the rally, I witness Mr Chen's vice- presidential candidate appealing with unabashed populism to Taiwanese resentment of "the mainlanders".
So if they are democrats, many are also Taiwanese nationalists. In their hearts, they would probably like full independence for Taiwan, as a separate, internationally recognised, state. Both commitments - to full-blooded democracy and to a separate Taiwan - make them especially hateful to the old men in Peking. After taking back Hong Kong and Macau, Communist leaders want to see Taiwan moving more rapidly towards the motherland, not away from it.
The electoral effects of the red dragon breathing fire are unpredictable. It could, indeed, lead wavering voters to play safe, and vote once again for the Kuomintang, or for the China-friendly Mr Soong. But such obvious bullying could also inflame Taiwanese sentiments against the mainland (and the mainlanders), and that could do more even than the lucky number five for Mr Chen. China's attacks on presidential candidate Lee during the 1996 election are held to have helped rather than harmed him.
When the shouting's over, everyone knows that, realistically, Taiwan's future for a long time to come will be neither unification with the mainland nor full independence, but rather to continue with what Mr Chen calls a "third way" between them.
This "third way" also means continuing the island's hectic, eclectic, spicy brew of Chinese, American, Japanese and local Taiwanese ingredients, ancient and modern, secular, Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian. Yet, certainly a change of party at the top must help to dismantle the remaining undemocratic vestiges of the Kuomintang's one-party state.
Even if this means choppier relations with Peking in the short term, it will surely be good for the world, too, in the long term. With all its faults, its tattiness, its corruption, Taiwan is already something remarkable: the first Chinese democracy in five thousand years of Chinese history. If it goes well, it will be a small positive example to the larger nation that constitutes one fifth of humankind.
For that prospect, it seems to me, one might reasonably offer a whole truck-load of golden money to the red-faced general. Or even to the dog god.
The author is a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford…
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Publication information: Article title: In the Line of the Red Dragon's Fire ; `for All Its Faults, Its Tattiness, Its Corruption, Taiwan Is Remarkable: The First Democracy in 5,000 Years of Chinese History'. Contributors: Ash, Timothy Garton - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 23, 2000. Page number: 5. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.