Taiwan's Feisty 'Moses' Irritates China's Leaders

Lee Teng-hui hopes to win historic presidential vote Saturday

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BUSINESSWOMAN Chang Chiu Chen is a supporter of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. But she doubts he can keep Taiwan from colliding with China.

On Saturday Mr. Lee, the popular but controversial incumbent, is expected to win the island's first direct presidential election, capping Taiwan's decade-long political passage from martial law to democracy.

But looming over the vote is a threatening China determined to block moves toward independence on its island rival and weaken Lee. Just how well he does will shape Taiwan's future, its relations with China and the US, and peace in prosperous Asia.

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An unknown party loyalist in the ruling Kuomintang (the KMT or Nationalist Party) just a decade ago, Lee has become a symbol of a newly democratic Taiwan and thus the epicenter of a dangerous political storm raging across the Taiwan Strait.

"People in Taiwan are in a very rebellious mood. They are not afraid of China," says Ms. Chang, who like some other intellectuals and business executives worries about China's recent military scare tactics, aimed at influencing the vote. "I think there could be a war in the future. How can Lee Teng-hui, China, and the United States all save face?"

Last June, the Taiwanese president made a landmark private visit to attend a college class reunion in the US. That enraged China, which has watched in frustration as Lee cracked Taiwan's long-standing diplomatic isolation by unofficially meeting world leaders and seeking to regain the island's seat in the United Nations, lost to China in 1971.

China vows to use force if necessary to recover Taiwan. It has claimed the island as a renegade province since the victorious Communists drove Gen. Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces from the mainland in 1949. To underscore its point, China launched a series of war games this month that have mounted in scale and intensity and crept ever closer to Taiwan's waters.

Alarmed, the US, Taiwan's longtime ally, has sent two aircraft-carrier groups to keep China in check, plunging Sino-US relations to their lowest point since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. In April, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher is due to meet China's Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in a first step toward cooling the crisis.

The US switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, but maintains close unofficial and military ties to the island. Taiwan's crusade for a world profile enjoys powerful support in the Republican-controlled US Congress, which forced a reluctant Clinton administration to grant Lee's visa.

Described variously as charismatic, shrill, and arrogant, Lee is the main political target of China. Although both governments still officially say the island is a province of China, Beijing has accused Lee of secretly backing independence and nudging Taiwan toward an open break.

Lee denies he has abandoned reunification, but demands democratic change in China before any union can take place.

THE first native Taiwanese to head a government long dominated by exiled mainlanders, the president has successfully played to a new Taiwanese identity, proud of the island's powerful economy, infant democracy, and de facto independence.

"What Lee Teng-hui is building is Taiwanese nationalism," says Tim Ting, a public-opinion pollster with Gallup Taiwan. "And Taiwanese nationalism and Chinese nationalism are clashing."

Angered by China's bullying and politically defiant, many native Taiwanese, three-quarters of the island's 21 million people, are rallying to Lee, Taiwanese analysts say. To win a majority, Lee will have to cut deeply into the pro-independence vote of rival Peng Ming-min of the Democratic Progressive Party, who served years in prison under the martial- law regime of General Chiang.

Lee, a fit, energetic campaigner with a style akin to that of Ronald Reagan, has been barnstorming the country and appearing at up to 10 rallies a day. While pledging to make peace a post-election priority, he thunders populist, anti-Chinese taunts in his native Taiwanese. A devout Christian, the president often likens himself to Moses rescuing the Israelites from Egypt.

"In retrospect, you could blame him [for worsening relations with China], but no one at the time thought his trip to the US would cause so much of a problem," says Henry Hsu, a shopkeeper. "Like Lee Teng-hui, we are ready to stand up to China."

"We are under siege, and because we are under siege, we are united. We now have a common sense of destiny," concurs Antonio Chiang, who publishes the respected Journalist magazine.

Still, a deep unease overhangs Taiwan. A small core of mainlanders, businessmen, and intellectuals with Chinese experience blame Lee for sacrificing the delicate status quo under which Taiwan enjoyed a growing rapprochement and economic ties with the mainland.

Attacking Lee as paternalistic and intolerant of criticism, opponents charge he has not done enough to reform the corrupt KMT he has headed since 1988. His anti-China campaign has diverted attention from his own personal scandal, which like that of President Clinton, involves questionable property dealings.

Western and Taiwanese critics say Lee has unnecessarily predicted he will command 50 percent of the vote. Failure to fulfill that goal would weaken Lee in China's eyes and make Taiwan more prone to intimidation.

Lee's outspoken, contentious political style leaves many wondering if he can muster the statesmanship to deal with China's intensely nationalistic leaders in the election aftermath. He is expected to call a national conference to discuss relations with the mainland, possibly to create a smoke screen for concessions to China, Taiwanese analysts say.

Panic over China and Lee's failure to inspire trust is unnerving part of Taiwan's intellectual and professional elite. Some, like businesswoman Chang, are temporarily fleeing abroad during the election. Others are changing their savings into safer US dollars. If China continues its military pressure, such a panic on a larger scale could wound Taiwan's blockbuster economy.

"If China has the strategy to encircle Taiwan, not attack, the economy will slow down," says Mr. Ting, the Gallup polling expert who himself is trying to sell his business and move to the United States. "Rich people will move out. Then, the economic problems will start and there will be trouble."

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