An olive branch for China

Taiwan's President-elect Chen follows March 18 victory with conciliatory gestures.

"We want peace! Let's make money!"

With this statement at a victory rally here Saturday night, Taiwan's president-elect appears to be moving quickly to set the tone for relations with Beijing.

An offer of economic cooperation and talks, rather than a bald bid for independence, may help to calm China. Days before the vote, Beijing threatened "bloodshed" if the Democratic Progressive Party's Chen Shui-bian won the election. China's official response to Mr. Chen's win was to reaffirm that Taiwan was still part of China but that it would "listen ... and watch what [Chen] does."

By almost every measure, Chen's ascendancy is historic. Taiwan has been under Nationalist control ever since the Kuomintang (KMT) lost the civil war on mainland China to the Communists in 1949. Mr. Chen will be Taiwan's first president from an indigenous party: The DPP was founded in 1984 by members of Taiwan's more than 70 percent native-Taiwanese majority. (The "mainlander" minority are those whose families arrived in 1949 with the KMT.) Chen's co-runner, feminist movement leader Annette Lu, is the first female vice president in a Confucian country and will be the first Taiwanese woman to take part in negotiations with China. Chen's wife may well be the world's first disabled first lady - she was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after being struck by a truck in what was widely believed to be a politically motivated attack during a campaign in the 1980s.

Chen has offered to go to China for reconciliation talks even before he is inaugurated May 20, and he extended an invitation to China's leaders to come to Taiwan. Chen's camp has suggested that just as President Nixon did in 1972, he will be able to function as a groundbreaker.

Peace and stability in cross-straits relations is "the common hope of people on both sides," Chen told an appreciative crowd of more than 60,000 people on Saturday night. Chen also hinted at pushing forward economic ties, using Taiwan's economic clout to improve China's economy in plans to "assist Third World countries in reforms and development" as well as fulfilling Taiwan's "responsibility as a member of the international society."

The implications of the peaceful and democratic overthrow of the ruling party were just beginning to sink in on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. With the exception of a report by the state-run Xinhua news agency that Chen had "taken the lead" in "elections in Taiwan province," China's media was devoid of news about the election result on Saturday. Taiwanese press covered reports of anti-Taiwanese independence demonstrations by students in Beijing, which were swiftly dispersed by police.

Some young professionals and college students in Beijing, who asked not to be identified, say they increased their Internet surfing to learn more about the poll, and a few even profess admiration for Chen and his decade-long drive to unseat the ruling party.

Chen "has devoted his life to fighting dictatorship, wiping out corruption, and bringing real democracy to Taiwan," says a photographer. "That's just the kind of leader that we need here."

Yan Xuetong, a scholar at a government think tank in Beijing, says Chen's win alone "will not trigger war." But the Chinese government may have painted itself into a corner in the public's mind here by repeatedly warning Taiwan's voters not to elect Chen.

Many young professionals in Beijing say that although they are opposed to a military conflict, the Communist Party may approve an attack in order to bolster its sagging image and fan the flames of nationalism among a disgruntled populace. "The Communist Party has already issued so many threats to Taiwan that it will look weak and ineffectual if it doesn't carry through with some action," says a young entrepreneur.

But one Beijing reporter says "I don't want to see Chinese fighting Chinese - our history is full of such strife, and it has never helped the country."

Chen said he wants to go to China with Vice President-elect Annette Lu to discuss the opening of economic ties and transport links before the inauguration. There are no direct air or postal links between the island and the mainland and investment in China is strictly limited by Taiwan's government.

Ms. Lu said the DPP's victory had given Taiwan a chance to break the more than 50-year-old deadlock with mainland China. "The enmity between the KMT and China's Communist Party has poisoned relations between China and Taiwan.... We have a chance to change things now."

"The huge amount of misunderstanding is certainly not because there's a great deal of hatred between the ordinary people on both sides," said popular Nobel chemistry prize laureate Lee Yuan-Tseh. Mr. Lee's support for Chen was seen as instrumental in causing the shift of the vote to Chen. Lee is considering Chen's offer of the premiership in a new ultra-party government.

A swing of undecided voters clinched the victory for Chen, who beat independent James Soong by just over two percentage points. Ruling KMT candidate Lien Chan was humiliated in a poor third place and is struggling to keep his party together.

While the result marks new beginnings for the DPP, it may well spell the beginning of the end for the KMT, the world's wealthiest political party, in its present form. Party Secretary Huang Kun-hui said top party officials will stand down by September.

*Staff writer Kevin Platt contributed to this report from Beijing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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