Taiwan is scouting for presidential timber. Last year Chiang Ching-kuo was reelected to his second six-year term as president. But the 75-year-old leader is not in good health. He is unlikely to run for a third term in 1990.
Finding a suitable presidential candidate is no easy task. Tensions are growing between older members of the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), who fled Communist-controlled mainland China in 1949, and the younger technocrats (of both Chinese and Taiwanese backgrounds), many of whom are returning to Taiwan after having earned their PhDs at foreign universities.
One faction accuses the other of being ``too young, too soft on communism, corrupted by foreign ideas,'' while that group responds that the first is ``too old, too inflexible, unrealistic about Taiwan's future.''
Because of attrition, the older party members are steadily being replaced by their younger counterparts. President Chiang is encouraging the younger leaders to become actively involved in politics.
Presidential candidates must first have the support of the KMT in order to be considered for election by the National Assembly. (Two opposition parties are allowed to participate in elections. Their influence is minimal.)
Gaining the approval of the KMT is a two-step process. First, a suitable candidate must be selected by key power figures. Then he (there are no women in contention for a top spot) will be officially nominated by the party's standing committee.
At present, there is no clear successor. Possible candidates include Lee Deng Hui, the vice-president. Mr. Lee is a native Taiwanese, and his high position is indicative of the improved relations between the local Taiwanese and those who fled mainland China.
If Chiang were unable to complete his term, Lee would become president. Lee is well-liked in government circles, but he does not have a political power base, Western observers here say.
These observers venture that should Lee become president, the premier would become the real leader of the country. They say that although relations between native Taiwanese and mainlanders have improved a great deal in the past 10 years, the KMT is not yet ready for a native Taiwanese as president.
Such a shift in power, from the president's office to the premier's, would not be unusual in a culture where leadership power is traditionally associated with a person, not an office.
The present premier, Yu Kuo-hwa, is not considered to be presidential material. Mr. Yu has presided over a series of domestic calamities, including a coal mining disaster and the collapse of key financial institutions. He was also premier when the Taiwanese-American writer Henry Liu was murdered in San Francisco last year, and has been criticized for not knowing that some key government officials may have been involved.
Government-controlled newspapers have reported that a new premier may be appointed this spring, indicating that Yu is on the way out of the political arena.
A less possible successor could be President Chiang's son, Chiang Hsiao-wo, who is head of a government radio station. Some feel that Chiang Hsiao-wo, on the merits of his family name, could add a note of stability when the time for change comes.
But the younger Chiang's flamboyant life style aggravates older, conservative party members. There would be strenuous opposition to his candidacy. Moreover, opposition sources claim that the orders to kill Henry Liu may have come from the younger Chiang.
Chang Hsiao-yen, the well-liked and ambitious director of the North American affairs branch of the Foreign Ministry, bears a striking resemblance to his purported father, President Chiang. There have been no official statements to verify a familial relationship, nor have there been overt gestures on Chiang's part to groom Chang for higher leadership positions.