Magazine article Insight on the News

Asia's Political Outcast Flexes Economic Muscles

Magazine article Insight on the News

Asia's Political Outcast Flexes Economic Muscles

Article excerpt

As its economy blossoms and democratic reforms spread, Taiwan may be able to end its diplomatic isolation -- and that has Beijing worried that the island may declare its independence from China.

Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui is a man in a hurry. To much of the world, Taiwan's democracy -- exemplified by televised fistfights in Parliament -- is as chaotic as it is young. But for Lee, democracy represents an opportunity to end a 23-year political blockade of this prosperous island, 1 00 miles off the coast of southern China, and enter a new -- and possibly dangerous -- phase in its history.

Taiwan's dramatic change from a police state to a democracy during the last two years has prompted the West to rethink its relationship with the government in Taipei. For decades, both Taipei and Beijing have claimed to be the true government of China. But while mainland China was mired in communism and poverty, Taiwan embraced capitalism and grew rich. And now, as a key player in Asia's economy, Taiwan is starting to flex its muscles. That has Beijing worried; the Communists fear that any easing of the island's diplomatic isolation will prompt more frequent calls for independence.

A crucial test will come in December -- an election for governor of Taiwan and mayoral balloting in Taipei and the island's second-largest city, Kaohsiung. Polls show the Taipei mayoral contest going to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, and the governor's race a dead heat between candidates from the DPP and the ruling Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang, or KMT

Lee is eager to demonstrate that his island of 21 million Chinese has more to gain through diplomacy than by directly challenging Beijing -- which rules a population of 1.2 billion that is growing at a rate of 14 million a year.

"With the strength rooted in economic development and political democratization, we ... are committed to taking an increasingly important role in the new world," Lee said in a nationwide address on Oct. 10, Taiwan's National Day.

The silver-haired Lee, 71, said Taiwan unswervingly adheres" to the goal of a single China, but scarcely a week goes by without an angry outburst from Beijing, which considers Taiwan a rebel-ruled province. China has been making its feelings known: It threatened to block Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council because Tokyo allowed a senior Taiwanese official to attend October's Asian Games in Hiroshima, and in September Beijing warned of "irreparable" harm to U.S.-Chinese relations because the American government permitted Taiwan to include the word "Taipei" in the name of its unofficial embassy in Washington.

Analysts say no leader in Beijing could survive the loss of face if Taiwan declared its independence -- a situation that would make military retaliation inevitable. "The threat of force is always there," says Chi Su, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council. "We will try not to give them any excuse to attack."

Taiwan, also called Formosa, became the final refuge of Chiang Tkai-shek's Nationalist government after its defeat by Mao Tse-tung's Communist Party in 1949. Like Tibet, Taiwan probably would have been invaded and declared an "autonomous region" of China but for the outbreak of the Korean War, which diverted Chinese troops from a planned invasion. In the decades that followed, Taiwan's leaders repeated their claim to be the legitimate government of all China, despite losing their U.N. seat to Beijing in 1971 and their embassy in Washington in 1979.

Under martial law, the KMT banned opposition parties, dissidents disappeared and police tortured political prisoners. Nearly half the opposition lawmakers now serving in Taiwan's Parliament served prison terms. Shortly before his death in 1988, President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, ended martial law and began political liberalization. …

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