Taiwan's Feisty 'Moses' Irritates China's Leaders
Lee Teng-hui hopes to win historic presidential vote Saturday
BUSINESSWOMAN Chang Chiu Chen is a supporter of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. But she doubts he can keep Taiwan from colliding with China.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.