TAIWAN's return to the China mainland will be spearheaded not by tanks and missiles, but by the lure of political democracy. This is the new vision that the Taipei government offers both to its nearly 20 million citizens and to the 1.1 billion Chinese in China.
``We describe our Taiwan experience as political democratization, economic free enterprise, and social and cultural pluralism,'' says Yu-ming Shaw, chief government spokesman of the Republic of China on Taiwan.
But reality lags behind the vision.
``We have not yet reached democracy,'' says a professor of political science at Taiwan University. The ruling Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party), still ``dominates the whole political scene,'' he adds, despite the emergence of a vigorous opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The DPP, founded illegally in 1986, has 13 seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's national parliament.
``Even if we won all the 101 seats to be contested in the upcoming elections,'' says DPP spokesman Tsai Shih-yuan, ``we still would not have a majority.'' This is because the majority of about 270 members of the Legislative Yuan have been in office since 1948, before Taiwan was defeated by the Communists on the mainland. Their terms have been extended until now by government decree.
Taiwan seats in the legislature have been gradually increased as mainland-elected legislators die or retire, but so far the government has been unable to hasten the pace of legislative change.
Nevertheless, the June 3-4 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing brought home to citizens here how much freer, even under one-party rule, Taiwan's political climate is than that of the mainland.
During the two years preceding Tiananmen, more than half a million Taiwanese visited the mainland either to see relatives or as tourists. Most returned to Taiwan, surprised at the poverty of their mainland cousins and with increased pride in the economic progress their island had made.
Furthermore, democracy will make a significant advance Dec. 2 in island-wide elections. For the first time in Taiwan's history, opposition parties may legally put up candidates. The contrast with 1986, when DPP candidates had to run as individuals, is considerable, says Daniel Huang, a candidate for the Taipai City Council.
``Voters won't just be choosing between individuals, they'll be choosing between parties,'' Mr. Huang says.
The KMT machine remains strong, and the party has 2 million members, although only half of them voted in party primaries early this year, says KMT spokesman James Chu.
Campaigning is rough: DPP candidates accuse the KMT of buying votes, particularly in rural areas, while KMT candidates say the DPP is faction-ridden and has no practical policies.
The DPP, essentially a middle-class party, has growing support in the cities and could win up to a third of the seats at stake.
Television is still under pervasive government control, but the print media have been freed to a degree almost unimaginable until the lifting of martial law two years ago.
Freedom of speech extends to the airing of previously taboo subjects, the most conspicuous of which is 2-28, a code-word for islandwide demonstrations on Feb. 28, 1947, followed by the imprisonment and killing of thousands of Taiwanese by troops of Chen Yi, the corrupt KMT governor.
``City of Sadness,'' a film dealing with this subject, won an award at the Venice Festival this year. Today it is showing to packed houses in Taipei.