Two years after the US deployed aircraft carriers to protect Taiwan's emerging democracy from Chinese missile threats, this weekend's elections have temporarily calmed the perpetual storm with Beijing by giving a boost to the ruling party.
In a poll widely seen as a harbinger of the 2000 presidential vote, Nationalist Party candidate Ma Ying-jeou narrowly defeated Chen Shui-bian, a leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, for control of the capital city of Taipei.
The Nationalist Party, 11 years after ending martial law and opening Taiwan to a multiparty system, maintains a policy of eventual reunification with China. That possibility seems remote for now, since the Nationalists are waiting for China's own democratization and recognition as China's equal.
"Despite my defeat, this poll represents a step forward for Taiwan's march toward democracy," said Mr. Chen, a onetime dissident who was imprisoned by the Nationalists during the martial-law era.
For the last week, taxis festooned with the opposition's blue-and-white pennants have joined tens of thousands of supporters on foot or motor scooters at Chen's campaign rallies.
Yet Chen lost his bid for a second four-year term because the much better financed Nationalists "poured so much money into television advertisements and other campaign strategies," says Li Junyi, an opposition spokesman.
Despite scattered scuffles between the Nationalist and opposition camps, leaders of both parties say the relative smoothness of the current election means that Taiwan is making a clean break with its authoritarian past.
From martial law to elections
After losing the Chinese civil war to the Communist Party in 1949, the Nationalists set up a rival government in Taiwan that mirrored the mainland's in the use of police and prisons to silence dissent.
Yet the lifting of martial law here in 1987 has unleashed a cacophony of political views and parties, all of which are echoed in Taiwan's freewheeling press.
The contrast could not be greater with the Communist-ruled mainland, where Beijing is preparing to try several leaders of the outlawed China Democracy Party.
As Taiwan's opposition evolves into a mainstream political force, the mainland's democrats continue to come under attack nine years after the People's Liberation Army opened fire on student demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Wang Youcai, a former Tiananmen leader who earlier this year sought Beijing's recognition of the China Democratic Party, is facing trial on charges of "incitement to overthrow the government," says Lu Siqing, a Hong Kong-based human rights monitor.
In China's Kafkaesque legal system, "Wang could be sentenced to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment merely for attempting to legally register the [Democratic] Party," says Mr. Lu.
Fellow party leaders Xu Wenli and Qin Yongmin have been arrested in the last week and face identical charges, he adds.
The arrests are part of a nationwide crackdown on China's beleaguered democracy movement just two months after Beijing signed the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
That document requires members to grant a wide range of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and association, and several dissidents cited the covenant when trying to set up the Democratic Party.
While the US and other Western nations praised Beijing's signing the rights pact as a sign of China's growing political tolerance, Washington last week condemned the current round of dissident arrests.
Yet Li Peng, the head of China's national legislature who in 1989 signed the decree that sent troops into Tiananmen Square, was quoted in the state-run press several days ago as saying China's ruling Communists would not allow the formation of an opposition party.
Lu, himself a former Tiananmen activist who fled to Hong Kong several years ago, says the election fervor in Taiwan and simultaneous crackdown on dissent on the mainland "shows that Taiwan is rapidly moving forward with democracy as China takes another step backward."
He adds that the mainland's clampdown on democracy also bodes ill for its hopes to reunify with Taiwan.
Lowered chances of a union
Lee Deng-wen, a taxi driver in Taipei, agrees. "Most people in Taiwan fear the [Chinese] Communist Party, and the ongoing round of dissident arrests hurts the chances of ever moving toward a democratic union with China," says Mr. Lee. "The Communist Party is an invisible force in every election in Taiwan."
"Many people here are afraid to vote for candidates who want Taiwan to openly declare independence, yet they don't want to elect politicians who advocate reunification with Communist China," he adds.
Although Taiwan has held defacto autonomy since the 1949 civil war split with the mainland, Beijing has threatened to attack the island if it formally declares independence.
During Taiwan's first free presidential election in 1996, Beijing launched a series of live missiles off the island's coast to remind it of that threat, but most Taiwan residents say the strategy backfired.
"China's missile tests hurt support for reunification, and Beijing should give up the threat of force if it ever hopes to form a confederation with Taiwan," says Wang Jian-xian, chairman of Taiwan's pro-union New Party.