Taiwan's Chen treads carefully

President-elect yesterday said 'eternal peace' with China is the goal, but held firm to his own terms.

In Chen Shui-bian's childhood home, the walls were inscribed with all the names of neighbors to whom the farming family owed money.

There was a different wall for every person they owed. When a debt was paid, they would wipe the writing off. But there were always names on the walls, Mr. Chen says.

Today, Chen has a larger constituency than just the charitable neighbors he grew up with in the tiny southern town of Madou. As president-elect of Taiwan, he now answers to 22 million people, whose political and ethnic divisions have come to the fore in a turbulent but flowering democracy.

While Chen won Saturday's contest by garnering just 39 percent of the voters, according to opinion polls conducted after the election, 70 percent said they were satisfied with the results.

In Beijing, the reaction has been more cautious toward the victory of their least-favorite candidate, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has historically supported independence from China. Both Chen and Beijing have put out the welcome mat for talks, but Beijing wants it acknowledged that Taiwan is part of China, a condition Chen has diplomatically refused. Lack of compromise on the "one China" phrase may be the main obstacle to negotiations as hard-line Beijing leaders bring more pressure to bear on President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji.

On the island, Chen's minority DPP government - which marks the end of more than 50 years of Nationalist Party rule - faces the task of parlaying alliances with former enemies, negotiating a smooth transfer of power, and orchestrating a united face toward the increasingly strident demands for unification from China's aging leaders. On Wednesday, the DPP debated a softening of its position on Taiwan's status but did not come to a decision.

Chen's history with the DPP goes back to its founding in 1986. Twenty years ago, he was safely ensconced in a brilliant law career. Academically gifted, Chen had won scholarships all the way through school and eventually graduated top of his law class at the prestigious Taiwan National University. When his wife persuaded him to defend one of the Kaosiung Eight - a group of activists arrested for organizing a pro-democracy demonstration - Chen lost the case. The activists, among them the future founders of the DPP, went to prison.

The event derailed Chen away from law. He became active in the DPP, which was founded by socialists and civil-rights and pro-independence activists a year before martial law was lifted by the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

The DPP, portrayed by detractors as a brawling bunch of separatists, has now almost succeeded in shedding the legacy of the party's early years - the advocation of a "Republic of Taiwan" and independence. But in Chen's victory speech, he described himself as president-elect of the "Republic of China," not Taiwan; made overtures to China; and tried to reassure both sides of the Taiwan Strait that he means business when it comes to improving relations with the mainland.

DPP expert Shirley Rigger, a political science professor at Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C., says that despite the dark side of Taiwan's troubled recent history, Chen will likely not present China's leadership with an opportunity or a need to attack to save face. "There's no need to overreact to Chen. He's not going to bite," says Professor Rigger.

Most Taiwanese want to maintain the undefined status quo which has allowed them increasing prosperity and freedom. The 39 percent of the electorate who put their faith in Chen did so out of anger at over 50 years of what they see as corrupt and inefficient rule by the KMT and consternation at blatant threats from China's leaders against voting for Chen during the election campaign.

"Taiwanese want peace with China," says Ray Chen, president of computer notebook manufacturer Compal. The company owns factories on the mainland, seen as the key market of the future. But "they don't want it at the cost of becoming like Hong Kong, which is easily threatened and controlled by Beijing." Chen's attitude reflects the hope of many of Taiwan's business leaders that he'll move quickly to establish trade links and allow direct investment in the mainland.

"The Taiwan independence idea to get the symbolic trappings of sovereignty - the flag, the anthem, and so on - was a phase that people went through to satisfy an emotional need," says Rigger in North Carolina. "But the DPP ... now recognizes that the essence of it is economic prosperity and political, social, and economic autonomy. That's what really matters. Both the elites and the grass roots members of the DPP feel that way."

Whether or not Chen can tackle reform of the judicial and education systems and separate the government from industry may depend on Chen's ability to strike deals with either the KMT majority or any new party formed by ex-KMT rebel James Soong. Mr. Soong, himself tainted by corruption allegations during the campaign, still ran a close second in the election and is attracting an exodus of KMT defectors. There's also the New Party, which represents the interests of the 15 percent of Taiwanese whose ancestors came from the mainland with the KMT when they retreated from Mao Zedong's victorious army in 1949.

During his time as Taipei city mayor, Chen was known for his efficiency and ability to work with members of other parties. He embodied his party's slogan of "A youthful Taiwan" by running mini-marathons, turning up at events on a motorbike, and dressing up like Superman, Michael Jackson, or Santa Claus at festivals.

Chen's image in the presidential campaign became a commodity - he was the only political candidate to make money out of campaign merchandise. The DPP sold caps for 10 cents, clothes, and bags emblazoned with his image and the word "A-bian" - the diminutive of his name.

In interviews, Chen is a model of calm and measure, a straight-talker who repeats party policy as if he knows it by heart. Although there's no sign of anger in his demeanor, he has a lot he could be angry about. He suffered personal tragedy when his wife was crippled by a truck during campaigning in the late '80s, which is widely thought to have been a politically motivated attack. He was imprisoned by KMT-controlled courts and has seen his mentors and colleagues locked up for demanding democratic freedoms.

Chen explained DPP policy on independence days before the election. "Our platform is based on the people voting to make a decision and choosing themselves. Any attempt to change the status quo or rewrite the Constitution has to go through a national plebiscite - which we have no plans to carry out."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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