Taiwanese tilt toward pro-China parties
Elections are still seven months away, but economic woes erode president's support.
A presidential election described widely as a "turning point" here is still seven months away. But in Taiwan's political time, that is close at hand - and both senior US administration officials and the architects of Taiwan's recent shift to multiparty democracy are starting to worry.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The problem as they see it: A widespread malaise and even disillusion among ordinary Taiwanese about a fragile reform movement that in 2000 unseated 50 years of the KMT's one-party rule and carved out a distinct political identity for Taiwan, separate from mainland China.
It is not impossible to contemplate the return of an old pro-China guard, say analysts - that would reverse the present status quo, and bring Taiwan strongly into the ethnic logic and gravitational pull of China, Inc.
So concerned are some US officials over the future of the strategic island that some are starting to ask: Who lost Taiwan?
One measure of the problems faced by the ruling pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, headed by President Chen Shui-bian, is the growing unease felt by their strongest supporters. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the party headed by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.]
Talk about hard-core support for a separate Taiwan, for example, and you are talking about Jim Chan and his family. Mr. Chan, an IT professional in his 30s, worked in Europe, but is now back debating whether to take over the family firm. The Chans, all generations, are strong Presbyterians. That church, long a dissenting voice, is so pro-independence that in 1971 it held an assembly calling for two UN seats for China: One for the mainland People's Republic, one for the island of Taiwan.
So, four years ago when the pro-Taiwan forces of President Chen ousted the pro-unification KMT, the Chans were ecstatic.
But not any more. Chan is disillusioned about a party and a president he sees "fumbling" and handing out political spoils in the same way the autocratic KMT did. Chan isn't sure how he will cast his vote. "I'm looking for other options, but not finding any," he says.
"Is Taiwan going to sink into the mire of dependency on China, and slowly become just another regional economic zone for Beijing?" asks a Bush administration official. "Or will they preserve an economic, political, and cultural identity as the only democracy in the Chinese world? Right now, it doesn't look good for the latter outcome."
Taiwan's economy, once one of the highest performing in Asia, is lethargic. Last quarter, again, performance dropped. Taiwan is moving from high-tech to a service base. But the public worries about a quality of life that had long been unquestioned.
The US used to be Taiwan's top trading partner; now China is. Taiwan's problem economy has been a boon for the opposition. They say the DPP's platform for independence is the cause of economic woes - with Mr. Chen as the chief obstructionist to progress.
Moreover, the pro-Taiwan camp faces a significant new alliance in Taiwanese politics between the two largest "pro-China" camps. The KMT has joined with the People's First Party of the charismatic James Soong, the former Governor of Taiwan Province. In the last election, KMT and Soong split their votes, with Soong peeling off votes like Ross Perot did in recent US elections. [Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified politician James Soong.]
Now the "pan-blue" coalition, as they are known, plan to share power, and in polls they score as much as eight points ahead of Chen. Early this month, the KMT won elections in Hualien County; the victory is viewed by some as a precursor of the March national vote.
What the pan-blue coalition offers as an antidote are so-called "direct links" with China. This means direct flights, KMT officials say, starting between Taipei and Shanghai, where 200,000 Taiwanese now work. Talks between Taiwan and China are shut down over a fundamental disagreement about the definition of "one China"; business people must fly into China via Hong Kong, an irritating inconvenience. KMT officials say if elected they will immediately move to begin talks with Beijing.
"We don't trust the communists, but we have a strong belief that the mainland will change. We are optimistic about a 'win-win' solution," says KMT spokesman Justin Chou. "We will start talks right after we are elected. We don't view China as the enemy, the way Chen Shui-bian does."