A QUIET revolution is going on in Taiwan - a revolution largely unremarked upon by the world's news media. In recent years there has been a dramatic overturning of authoritarian rule in such Asian countries as the Philippines and South Korea. Events in those countries got major headlines - perhaps because they were attended by violence and confrontation.
But here in Taiwan, bastion of the noncommunist Chinese regime ousted 40 years ago from the mainland by Mao Tse-tung's communists, change just as remarkable is under way without violence and without much international fanfare.
Although a soaring, blue-and-white mausoleum to Chiang Kai-shek commands the center of Taipei, the dynasty he established in Taiwan has ended. His years ruling Taiwan in ``exile'' from the mainland were autocratic ones in which the authority of the Chinese mainlanders he brought with him was paramount. The native Taiwanese, who make up about 85 percent of Taiwan's 20 million population, had little say.
With an imperial disregard for democracy, Chiang, who died in 1975, anointed his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, to succeed him. Chiang Ching-kuo, who himself died earlier this year, set in motion some surprising reforms. One was ending almost 40 years of martial law. Another was paving the way for the accession of Taiwan's first native-born President, Lee Teng-hui.
Since his accession, carefully balancing conservative elements among the Chinese hierarchy against a strong reformist drive from younger Chinese and native Taiwanese, President Lee has let the breezes of openness riffle through his administration. The press is much freer, and is able to criticize. The ban on street demonstrations has been lifted, and opposition groups have used this new liberty to protest with vigor.
Mr. Lee faced, and won, a major test of his standing earlier this month when, in addition to the presidency, he was confirmed as chairman of the ruling Kuomintang. In an interview before the party congress, he talked with me about the need for injecting younger politicians into the system. Lee, an agricultural economist by training, with a master's degree from Iowa State University, is a tall, outgoing man. He sees the need for removing political deadwood and for party reform. At his party's congress, he restructured a number of key committees and has since recruited new faces in a major shuffling of the Cabinet.
Some critics, of course, want him to move even faster. Yao Chia-wen, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, told me: ``Democracy is inevitable, but it's not going fast enough.'' Mr. Yao, critical of inefficiency and corruption in government, is himself only recently out of jail after serving a seven-year sentence for sedition. But he sounds remarkably unembittered, talks frankly of shortcomings in his own party, and when pressed, concedes that government reforms are ``moving in the right direction'' - it's just that they are not moving fast enough.
But though some reformers remain impatient, most agree that change has been significant and that the political scene in Taiwan is fluid and exciting.
In part, this is because of the end of the Chiang dynasty. In part it is because of a successful economy; with a strong economic base, there is greater readiness for political reform. And in part it is because of changes on the Chinese mainland. The Chinese who fled from the grasp of communism remain understandably suspicious of Peking. But there is a recognition of at least some economic and political relaxation there.
Finally, Taiwan's leaders are facing political reality. The old political guard from the mainland is passing from the scene. The Taiwanese must be brought into the political system. Lee's accession is evidence of that and seems to presage change.