Taiwan: a dynamo in limbo

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FOR almost 40 years, Taiwan's leaders have channeled the island's political and military adversity into extraordinary economic achievement. By such measures as automobile and telephone ownership, work force still in agriculture (only 18 percent), infant mortality (8 percent), and university enrollment (25 percent of college-aged youths), Taiwan is a contemporary society. Its trade surplus alone with the United States, nearly $16 billion last year, is double the total two-way trade between the US and the People's Republic of China. Taiwan even has several automakers, rivaling South Korea's, but it lacks a global marketing strategy.

Taiwan still must bring its political maturity to the level of its economic muscle. Officially, the case for permitting an opposition party to organize and stand against the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) has been made for more than a year now. A Democratic Progressive Party, more a coalition of dissident voices than an organized opposition, was formed last fall. The KMT is making itself out as the initiator of political reform: ``The signs are all there,'' Premier Yu said a week ago: ``the emergence of a strong middle class, an educated public yearning for more political participation, and a society that has matured enough to handle the added responsibilities of democratic politics.'' For another rationale for reform, Taipei has only to look at Seoul, where a Cabinet shake-up occurred this week after the mishandling of student protests.

Political freedom has its own risks. Failure to move ahead on reform, if demanded by the populace, would endanger US backing, crucial to Taiwan's survival. Peking has warned that social upheaval on Taiwan could provoke an armed takeover attempt from the mainland. (Peking has also forbidden Taiwan to develop nuclear weapons, align with the Soviets, or unilaterally declare independence.) As it is, Peking's timetable for unification with Taiwan may be accelerating. Deng Xiaoping would like to see it in his lifetime: If peaceful, it would tremendously boost his plan for China's modernization. The PRC state security forces, who are behind unification, are pushing it. China may view the Hong Kong and Macao status issues as settled - however premature, in the case of Hong Kong. China can't act against Taiwan now, but may attempt pressure on the US government.

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Taiwan's leaders disdain anything like the ``one-China, two systems'' arrangement to take place on Hong Kong after 1997. Peking had promised autonomy to Tibet, they point out. True autonomy for Taiwan would prove impossible for Peking to accept: Would Mongolian autonomy be next? Would educated Taiwanese be sent to the mainland? Or great numbers of mainland peasants to Taiwan? Meanwhile, Taiwan labors to maintain its edge against dynamic competitors while dealing with problems, such as a brutalized environment, brought on by its own success. Japan, with a mature product line in which it has little rivalry, and a global communications system permitting instant response to market change, is the model.

Taiwan today remains in political limbo, in terms of realizing its ambition toward the mainland. Its agenda is to make room for a model democratic society somewhere between its twin preoccupations: national security and economic overachievement.

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