Monday, December 20, 2004

Poll Defeat Sinks Taiwan's Leader's Independence Agenda

Pacific News Service, News Analysis, Goerge Koo, Posted: Dec 20, 2004

Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian's failure to capture a majority for his Democratic Progressive Party in the recent parliamentary election was a big blow to his professed goal of taking Taiwan towards independence.

Chen's loss also signals that the time is ripe for serious cross-straits dialogue between Taiwan's leadership and that of the mainland.

Had Chen and his independence-leaning coalition seized control of the parliament they would have struck a historic first. But instead of gaining enough seats to dominate the 225-seat body, Chen's coalition gained just one, for a total of 101 seats.

The opposition led by the Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist Party originally from the mainland, held on to a slim majority--115 seats. Independents hold the remaining seats.

Given the momentum of Chen's re-election last March, most observers, including the opposition, believed that control of the parliament was within his grasp. Instead, he got only a 34-percent approval rating, an all-time low.

Throughout his first term, Chen blamed opponents as the root of his ineffectiveness. In the parliamentary campaign, he pledged to step down in two years if given a majority. To no avail.

Chen erroneously assumed that his popularity depended on his taking Taiwan towards independence and downplayed bread-and-butter economic issues.

He tested the idea that Taiwan's people should consider Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founder of modern China, a foreigner. The idea didn't resonate among the public, and he back-pedaled.

He also proposed replacing Mandarin with the local Taiwan dialect as the official language. Mandarin Chinese's importance as a global language is now second only to English. Chen's proposal would have deprived Taiwan's future generations of a built-in edge while pursuing careers on the mainland.

Chen suggested the use of "Taiwan" either in addition or in place of "Republic of China" to mark a clear break from the one-China concept.

He also announced plans to rewrite the constitution in time for a referendum before 2008, obviously aiming to hold hostage the 2008 Olympics in the mainland, as leverage in dealing with Beijing.

Even the Bush administration grew weary of Chen's antics. In late October, Secretary of State Colin Powell went to Beijing and publicly declared: "There is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation, and that remains our policy, our firm policy."

Powell's hinted support for reunification, shocked the Taipei government. Followed by the failure to capture parliament, Chen had to resign his party chairmanship and promise to focus his remaining term on the general good of Taiwan.

Chen clearly misunderstood the significance of his March re-election, when he won with only a margin of 30,000 votes out of 13 million cast, and under a cloud of suspicion.

The most controversial accusation of wrongdoing was the alleged staging of an assassination attempt on Chen on election eve. "Homemade" bullets (or bullet) mysteriously grazed both Chen and his vice presidential running mate, creating instant sympathy for the alleged victim/candidates.

Crying "foul," the opposition demanded a complete investigation. To date, only the alleged makers of the bullets have been identified. No explanation of the incident has been made.

Periodically, Chen publicly declares his willingness, even eagerness, to establish dialogue with Beijing, only to repudiate such intention with contrary actions and statements days later.

I met President Chen in the winter of 2001 during his first term. He gave me assurances that he wanted to establish ties with Beijing and that he had no intention to move Taiwan toward independence. He fooled me then.

Thanks to Chen and his predecessor, Lee Teng-hui, a whole generation of young people in Taiwan has an increasingly vague appreciation of their Chinese heritage, a confused sense of their ethnicity and an ignorance of their cultural roots.

Now Chen is a lame duck without a parliament in his hip pocket. Perhaps he is finally sincere about wanting to begin talks with Beijing.

Taiwan enjoys an ever-increasing trade surplus with the mainland, reaching $50 billion last year. Even closer economic ties can only help Chen leave a positive legacy. The challenge now is to convince a wary Beijing of his sincerity.

In the meantime, Beijing has announced plans to enact an "anti-secession law" as a deterrent to any attempts of Taiwan to move towards independence. I'm not convinced such a law will resolve the cross-straits impasse.

Whatever Chen's true intentions, I believe a cross-straits dialogue under any auspices is essential. To avoid duplicity or any appearance thereof, the so-called Track II "unofficial" venue would be the best way to begin a genuine dialogue.

Washington could be the ideal host of such private, out-of-public-limelight talks between responsible representatives from both sides of the straits.