Academic journal article Policy Review

The "Chineseness" of Taiwan

Academic journal article Policy Review

The "Chineseness" of Taiwan

Article excerpt

ON THE EVE OF THE VICTORY of opposition candidate Chen Shuibian in Taiwan's March presidential election, there were jitters aplenty. Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji, usually cast as the mainland's "nice cop," waggled an admonitory finger on television and warned the Taiwanese not to vote for Chen, who had been an advocate of Taiwan's independence. I heard of at least one person who cast his vote and then took the next plane out. When the votes were counted, Chen's victory caused consternation in Beijing and caught Washington by surprise. Some in Taiwan's military were also reportedly unhappy with Chen. A rumor made the rounds on the eve of his inauguration that a Taiwan jet or naval ship might defect to China as Chen was sworn in. Some even feared civil unrest.

In the event, nothing of the sort happened. Even some in the long-ruling Kuomintang party seemed to take a slight satisfaction: Their loss of power at least proved that the political reforms they had implemented were genuine. The winners were pleased but still pinching themselves: They had come a long way, from their beginnings in the streets fighting the police to the corridors of power. Given the potentially explosive passions that still lie beneath the surface in Taiwan politics, the good sense and even good fellowship were all the more remarkable. In Taiwan for the inauguration in May, I found the island more confident and full of life than I have known it in almost 30 years. And a key to it all is the much underestimated Chen Shuibian himself.

A core of principle

CHEN CAME TO THE HIGHEST OFFICE after 20 years as a key leader in Taiwan's democratic opposition. Many expected him to prove inept and divisive. Certainly he is a contrast to many of his opposite numbers among the Kuomintang stars of his generation; in addition to being very able, as is Chen, they tend to have studied abroad and have near-native command of foreign languages. Chen's parents were land-less farmers in Taiwan's south; peasant style, he calls himself "A-bian" -- a populist anomaly in a society where graduate schools and advanced degrees figure in conversation the way weather does to the British. Not that A-bian lacks qualifications: He scored top in the island-wide college entrance examination and graduated from the Law School of National Taiwan University. But no one groomed him for success. His choices ever since he abandoned a lucrative career in corporate law to defend political prisoners (and eventually served prison time himself) have not been those of a careerist.

Nor have foreigners, by and large, taken to Chen. Washington apparently feared him as an "extremist." Many were privately relieved a few years ago when he was defeated for reelection as mayor of Taipei by a Kuomintang full-court press -- a loss that, ironically, pushed him into the presidential race. In fact, few policy people had ever met him. State Department rules permit only low level officials to visit Taiwan, and even they had neglected the fundamental diplomatic duty to get to know the opposition as well as the ruling party. They knew the familiar Kuomintang faces, young and old, but had less of a feel for Chen and the DPP -- even though, during his term as mayor of Taipei, Chen had been easy to find: The new City Hall is an easy walk just across the plaza from the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

This concern, to be fair, was not entirely a function of ignorance. In my handful of meetings with Chen over the past few years I was always troubled, while sensing his obvious high intelligence and political skills, by a certain rigidity or lack of subtlety; a tendency to oversimplify, particularly when he discussed foreign or China policy.

Those doubts have now dissolved completely. Chen's cabinet choices, drawn from both his own Democratic Progressive Party and the defeated Kuomintang, are generally agreed to be first rate. His choice of prime minister in particular is inspired: Tang Fei, current defense minister and a former air force general, a man universally respected both for the way he modernized Taiwan's air force and for his dedication to the principle of civilian control. …

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