Beijing vs. Taiwan's voters: Democracy wins out

China attempts to influence the presidential election Saturday, but voters still make their own choices.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even as China's leaders sharpen their threats toward Taiwan ahead of its second-ever presidential election tomorrow, China may be realizing that the island's 22 million citizens will never give up their expanding rights to join a Communist-ruled mainland.

On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said "We must be crystal clear that no matter who comes to power [in the weekend election], Taiwan will never be allowed to become independent."

China wants Taiwan to join the mainland under a "one-country, two systems" formula in which the island would lose the right to elect its top leaders, but could retain its capitalist economy. In the past three years, China has taken the smaller territories of Hong Kong and Macau back under its jurisdiction under similar arrangements.

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But "Taiwan already has freedom, democracy, and prosperity," says Andrew Yang, who heads the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. "People in Taiwan are saying, 'what can Beijing offer us through reunification?' Some Taiwanese would think about joining a democratic confederation with China, but Beijing is afraid that would create pressure for more freedom and autonomy from other provinces."

China has tried to intimidate Taiwan's voters against choosing Chen Shui-bian, whose Democratic Progressive Party gained the limelight a decade ago by calling for a formal split from China. The DPP has since blurred its stance on the issue. During the campaign, Mr. Chen said he would only declare independence if China launches an attack.

Chen is running neck-and-neck with two other candidates, and a 10-day ban on pre-election polls is keeping everyone guessing. But some think China's strategy is backfiring, and that the relatively youthful Chen may be taking the lead. "If Chen Shui-bian gets elected, for the next year I'm going to tell every Chinese official I meet: 'You guys got this candidate elected,' " says a Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For the first time since establishing power on Taiwan in 1949, the ruling Nationalists, or Kuomintang (KMT), may be relinquishing control if their candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, fails to be promoted by Taiwan's voters. The Nationalists officially back reunification talks with the mainland when it becomes democratic. The third major candidate, James Soong, a defector from the KMT, also professes to favor eventual reunification.

Yet for all the rhetoric, Beijing's actions during this election differ greatly from events just four years ago. Beijing shot missiles off Taiwan during the island's last presidential vote in 1996. Last month China issued a White Paper that warned Taiwan against an indefinite delay on reunification talks.

During the just-concluded annual session of the National People's Congress, the Army was granted a 12.7 percent budget increase, which analysts say may be an underestimate of the funds Beijing is devoting to modernize its armed forces. The Army has named reunification with Taiwan as its top task, and is overseeing a missile build-up on China's east coast, just opposite Taiwan.

In the past four years, "the force has grown from 65 to 300 missiles," says Mr. Yang. "In the next two to three years, China is likely to station 600 missiles across from Taiwan, enough to launch a devastating strike."

Whether Washington would risk war with China remains the big question. "Of course, the chances that the US would come to Taiwan's defense would be much greater if Taiwan did not provoke the conflict by issuing a declaration of independence," says a Beijing-based diplomat.

The US broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan to recognize Beijing in 1979, but still supplies the island with arms and has a policy of "strategic ambiguity" on how it would react to a Chinese invasion.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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