Taiwan's Old Guard faces mounting pressure for change

When President Chiang Ching-kuo addressed senior officials of Taiwan's ruling party, his closing remarks included a surprising show of concern. ``All of the party's members and all of the people have great expectations of us,'' Mr. Chiang said. ``Far too great,'' he added. Under Mr. Chiang and his father, Chiang Kai-shek, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) has enjoyed nearly four decades of uninterrupted power here. Nowhere in East Asia is the political Old Guard more entrenched than in this small island republic.

But as the aging President's comments suggested, popular pressure for political change is fast mounting here. Taiwan is searching for a new political identity -- more cautiously than the region's other newly industrialized countries, but with a similar sense of urgency.

There is a deepening contradiction at the heart of this island's political life. Propelled by its dynamic industries, Taiwan is at the forefront of the Pacific region's emergence as the center of global economic progress.

At the same time, the leadership remains mired in the past. Although defeated on the mainland by the Chinese communists in 1949, the Taipei government continues to claim itself rightful ruler of all China. As the cornerstone of the KMT's ideology, the claim has been used to justify a continual state of martial law and the virtual exclusion of the majority of Taiwanese from the political process.

The growing sophistication of the economy and greater exposure to outside influences are now forcing the issue. Taiwan's leaders increasingly are asked a question they often level at their rivals in Peking: Can political and economic freedom be separated?

``We can no longer pursue our economic goals without greater openness,'' says a leading Taiwanese industrialist. ``Our government must modernize, too. A bicycle has two wheels.''

Both politicians and business leaders -- including many younger members of the KMT -- are slowly becoming more vocal in their support of political reform. These include more freedom of movement and assembly; a freer press; and a younger, more liberal leadership willing to deemphasize the government's preoccupations with security and ideology.

Most vocal of all, however, is Taiwan's opposition movement, or tangwai, meaning ``outside the party.'' Although tangwai groups are prohibited from forming political parties, their candidates generally command one-third of the vote in island-wide elections. While the movement focuses on civil rights issues and demands for more representation, it is chronically lacking in leadership, organization, and a common platform. Instead, the tangwai lives essentially by its criticism of the KMT.

Many analysts believe that such an opposition may be all most Taiwan citizens want -- or can reasonably expect. Nonetheless, there has been little indication that the KMT will allow organized parties to play even this limited role.

The KMT's principal concern is self-preservation. As ``mainlanders'' (those who fled from the mainland in 1949) account for only 15 percent of Taiwan's population of 19 million, the tangwai is by definition made up principally of Taiwanese (Taiwan-born citizens).

``The real disagreement between the opposition and the Kuomintang is over who runs Taiwan, not over how to run it,'' a foreign analyst says.

Taipei has long sought to accommodate local political frustrations through a program of ``Taiwanization'' in the KMT. But while the majority of lower-level party office holders are now island-born, they have yet to assume positions of influence in the party hierarchy.

The most visible sign of Taiwan's political difficulties is its long-standing succession crisis. Because President Chiang replaced his father, he was long expected to designate one of his sons to succeed him -- thus creating a ``Chiang dynasty.'' But at the party plenum last month, he paved the way for Vice-President Lee Teng-hui to succeed him.

Mr. Lee's ascendency will mark a significant departure for Taiwan. He will be the first Taiwanese president since the Republic of China was established here in 1949.

More significantly, presidential power is expected to be decentralized once Lee takes office. This is likely to signal an end to the personalized, one-man rule enjoyed by both Chiang and his father.

Many issues remain unresolved in Taiwan's political evolution. Analysts question, for instance, whether a traditional ``strongman'' in the Confucian mold will reappear after a period of shared responsibility -- as occurred in China after the death of Mao Tse-tung. But like East Asia's other advancing societies, a new generation of leaders is fast bringing Taiwan to a political turning point from which there is ultimately no retreating. Last of a series. Previous stories ran April 8-10.

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