Why Anger the Dragon?

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Adams; With Ko Shu-Ling in Taipei

As a vote looms, Taiwan seems ready to abandon an era of defiant nationalism.

Ken Wen, 60, is fed up with Taiwan's pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian. Wen, a home builder, voted for Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) back in 2000. In so doing, he helped end the 50-year rule of the Kuomintang, which has traditionally opposed independence from China. But now, after eight years of corruption scandals, cross-strait tensions and poor economic performance, Wen says it's time for another change. At a rally in the port city of Keelung last week, he said he planned to vote for the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou for president on March 22, hoping Ma will boost Taiwan's stagnant economy by strengthening links with China. "If we don't open up more, we're finished," Wen says.

That's a common view in Taiwan these days. In fact, both candidates in the upcoming vote--Ma and his DPP challenger, Frank Hsieh--have promised to open Taiwan's economy to the giant next door and to take a more moderate tone with Beijing. But if the front-runner Ma, who is Hong Kong-born, triumphs over native son Hsieh, the voters' message will be especially clear. Ordinary Taiwanese will have rejected Chen's confrontational tactics: a victory not just for moderates like Ma, but also for Chinese President Hu Jintao, who's taken a more restrained approach to the island in recent years. And by electing the first mainland-born leader since the end of Taiwan's authoritarian era 20 years ago, locals will also have stepped away from the identity politics that have long divided this island.

As all this suggests, a Ma victory would have far-reaching implications. First, of course, it would cool off one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints, the one place that could actually spark a war between China and the United States. (Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened force if the island makes a permanent break; Washington has pledged to help its democratic ally if attacked).

Since 2000, China and Taiwan have been locked in a vicious circle: Beijing has refused to deal with the island's pro-independence government, and Chen has inflamed tensions by loudly trumpeting the island's sovereignty. But Ma wants to break this cycle with expanded economic links and engagement with Beijing. His pledges include the opening of direct cross-strait flights by May 2009 (travelers currently must touch down in a third location, adding several hours to trips), lifting caps on China-bound investment (helping Taiwan firms better tap the mainland market), allowing more Chinese tourists to visit the island (they're currently limited to 1,000 a day) and opening Taiwan's economy to more Chinese investment. "There's no need to antagonize the dragon," Ma adviser Su Chi put it in an interview in January. His boss has even proposed to restart political talks with Beijing, which have been suspended since 1999.

Oh, and then there's the pandas. Unlike Chen, Ma has said he'd accept China's standing offer of two of the cuddly bears (the pair are currently cooling their paws in Sichuan).

But is Taiwan ready to put a panda-hugger in office? Despite Ma's lead in the polls, he's not yet a shoo-in. Pro-independence sentiment and Taiwan pride remain near record highs; 21 percent of islanders back full independence and 44 percent identify themselves as Taiwanese only, according to recent survey data. As a mainlander, Ma remains vulnerable to attacks on his patriotism; if elected, he'd be first the non-local-born president since the autocrat Chiang Ching-kuo (who was Chiang Kai-Shek's son) died 20 years ago. …