In Taipei mayoral race, it's pragmatism vs. fiery rhetoric

Saturday election could gauge sentiment on how to handle relations with China.

Official voting for the Taipei mayor's race doesn't begin until Saturday. But to many observers, the results seem all but locked up.

Incumbent Ma Ying-jeou appears poised to trounce challenger Lee Ying-yuan. Some predictions put the margin as high as 50 percentage points.

The results are being closely watched, since the mayor's office is considered a steppingstone to the presidency. If voters do tap the mild-mannered Mr. Ma, of the Kuomintang Party, over the Democratic Progressive People's Party's fiery Mr. Lee, observers say it may signal an emerging consensus in Taipei, one in which a pragmatic, measured approach to politics is favored over provocative rhetoric. It may also foreshadow how voters want to handle a key issue: the all-important cross-straits relationship with China.

"There are now two major identities among Taiwanese voters," says Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University. "There is the 'local Taiwanese identity,' which supports a romantic, idealized notion of the native Taiwanese people. Then there is the so-called 'status quo' identity, which says that we're all Taiwanese here. The status quo values economic development and social stability."

This identity split has been neatly reflected in the differences between the two candidates.

Ma has been consistently low-key throughout his campaign, rarely attacking his opponent. Offering no dramatic policy proposals, he has maintained an image as a calm, prudent and technocratic manager.

Lee, on the other hand, came out punching, and has fiercely criticized Ma for his management of the city in the past four years. He has also tried to cast the election in ethnic terms by touting his Taiwanese roots in contrast to Ma's mainland connections.

Ma was born in Hong Kong in 1950 and moved to Taiwan when he was one year old. At numerous campaign appearances, Lee has made unveiled remarks about how Ma's background might affect his handling of cross-strait relations in the mainland's favor. Lee's attacks reflect the traditional split in Taiwanese politics, between the minority of ethnic Chinese from the mainland whose families fled to Taiwan following World War II and the majority of native-born Taiwanese.

Significantly, Lee's attempt to stir old ethnic rivalries appears to have backfired. Observers say such tactics don't work with an increasingly assimilated Taipei population, in which intermarriage is common.

"Taipei is now a sophisticated cultural center," said Paul Chen, editor of The China Post, an English-language daily. "It doesn't do any good to stir up old ethnic divisions."

Still, for some voters, Lee's message resonates. "Taiwan today has more in common with the US and Japan than it does with the mainland," says one Lee supporter.

Closer ties with the mainland, however, may be inevitable as trade between the two sides increases. For status quo Taiwanese, this is a prelude to closer, peaceful ties with the mainland, though not necessarily reunification. This past year, trade with the mainland amounted to nearly $12.5 billion, according to Taiwan's Ministry of Economic of Affairs, making China Taiwan's fourth largest trade partner.

Mired in an economic downturn, Taiwanese businesses argue that investment in the mainland, where labor is cheaper, is critical to financial recovery. But critics see this as a "hollowing out" of the island's economy. Worse, they say, it is a Chinese campaign to take away Taiwan sovereignty.

Generational differences also contribute to a split in attitudes. "There is an entire generation of young Taiwanese who did not live through World War II, hardly remember martial law, and have only known the economic development of the past 40 years," says Jeffry Babb, a Taipei-based journalist. "For them, the issue of native versus mainlanders is a two-generation-old problem."

Analysts point as well to a softer tone from China's leaders on cross-straits relations - reflecting a maturing foreign policy - as another impulse toward closer ties. Until recently, Taiwan's leaders could count on Chinese belligerence at the slightest provocation. On the eve of the 1999 presidential election, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji promised "bloodshed" if Taiwanese voters "acted on impulse," referring to the campaign of President Chen Shui-bian, who voiced support for independence. Mr. Chen won a narrow victory, due in part, many say, to a surge of nativist sympathy.

"China is much more sophisticated in its foreign policy," Mr. Yang says. "It has learned from its dealings with the outside world."

For example, Beijing has recently called for renewed talks with Taiwan, and outgoing President Jiang Zemin has requested that the two sides "shelve for now certain political disputes."

Most agree that while the Taiwanese may accept closer ties with the mainland they will never give up certain freedoms.

"Independence is nonnegotiable," Yang says. "And China knows that the Hong Kong model will not work in Taiwan." Polls show that Taiwanese overwhelmingly reject the "one country, two systems" policy in use in Hong Kong and Macau.

Critics say that China, buoyed by recent successes on the world stage, plans to corner Taiwan economically and diplomatically.

But it appears that what Beijing's leaders have now realized, and what an increasing number of Taiwanese citizens seem resigned to, is that time - healer of all wounds - is on China's side.

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