China silent on Taiwan election

President Chen Shui-bian said Tuesday that he doesn't oppose an immediate election recount.

Three days after President Chen Shui-bian was reelected by a microscopic 0.2 margin, Chinese media has said little about the vote, or Mr. Chen, whom China regards as a troublemaker for his efforts to foster a separate Taiwan. Tuesday Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan broke the silence slightly by stating that "the results don't matter and won't change the fact that Taiwan is part of China."

China now has a 24-hour news channel that covers the latest explosions in Baghdad, the shooting of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, and the New Hampshire primaries. But events in Taiwan, which a majority of Chinese say they would readily go to war over, rarely make the news in the state-run press. Prior to the vote, Beijing officials were studiously disinterested in what they term the "so-called elections." This position remains, though China now appears to back the opposition Kuomintang Party's demand for a recount.

Yet more broadly, if Taiwan is developing a different and more complex social, political, and intellectual identity, this is not yet a subject of news or discussion here outside elite circles. Moreover, how the Taiwanese people behave, what they think, how they define their ambitions is not a topic that local media or average Chinese pay attention to. Taiwan in the Chinese mind may be an object of great and manifest desire, but it is held without much reference to its actual character or daily activity.

On March 21, the day after 13.5 million Taiwanese voted, papers around Asia carried the results in banner headlines. In Beijing, the People's Daily, the paper of record here, led with a 1,000 word story on future developments in modern Chinese philosophy. On the bottom right, a 60 word report from the official Taiwan Affairs Council, mentioned only that Taiwan's first referendum, which was held in tandem with the elections, had not passed.

Mr. Sun, an agricultural salesman walking to lunch here Tuesday, said he heard a TV report that Taiwan held elections. But the report had not stated who the winner was. "I'm not sure who won," Sun added.

China is highly attentive to protocol, and with protesters demanding a recount in the streets of Taipei, and with offers by Chen to recount, an official response by China may be premature. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing have spoken by phone, foreign ministry officials say. Mr. Li asked Mr. Powell to "do more to support the 'One China' policy." For Beijing, "one China" means that Taiwan is part of China's sovereign territory, despite it's separate 51-year history.

For China, the stakes in the Taiwan vote are high. Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, and the old ruling Kuomintang Party - represent different approaches to China. The KMT or Nationalist party, which ironically was formed by the losing side in China's civil war, is viewed more favorably in Beijing. Moreover, having lost in 2000, if the KMT concedes a loss this year, the party could well fall apart, outside observers say, and set up dynamics in Taiwan that China will have difficulty managing.

Should Chen govern another four years, insiders here worry, the world community could begin to gradually and wrongly apply liberal assumptions to the cross-Straits dispute.

"The election is a Pandora's Box of poison gas," says a Beijing academic. "Chen Shui-bian can only succeed by promoting a national identity for Taiwan. Since he says he can't stop doing this, he is creating big trouble for China."

Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong stated in a Singapore paper recently that pressure for Taiwan independence is "steadily growing," and assumptions are rife that "it is possible to have independence without a war - so our only hope is the PLA" [People's Liberation Army]. Mr. Yan recommended a "military action that should be more than a military exercise," if Taiwan holds more referendums, or goes ahead with a proposed constitution that deletes language from the current 1950s-era Constitution about "One China."

Despite a paucity of information about life and culture in Taiwan, the roots of the Chinese passion for the island run deep. Nationalist historians speak of China's 5,000 year history of ethnic unity, including Taiwan - though outside scholars dispute claims of an uninterrupted territorial Han identity. "The emperors didn't care about islands," says a European scholar. "They cared about the continent, about problems in Manchuria. Not until Mao [in 1949] was there a steady demand to 'liberate' Taiwan."

On Internet chat rooms, and even among Beijing intellectuals, Taiwan is spoken of using the language of family. Some call Taiwan a "runaway cousin." An Internet posting refers to China as a father, and Taiwan as a disobedient son. "The father must discipline the son, and do it now," the "netizen" said. A Beijing scholar said that "in a divorce, both husband and wife must agree. We do not agree."

Experts say China has practical problems with a permanently "renegade" Taiwan. Beijing is concerned about separatist tendencies in Tibet and Xinjiang. Also, Taiwan has been so long held up as an object of unification, that should it be "lost," party legitimacy could be undermined, experts say.

The robust national identity movement in Taiwan that played out in last week's election is not lost on all Chinese. A new-old rationale has already begun to emerge in Beijing circles that purports to explain it: foreign influences. "Taiwan's identity movement has been manipulated by foreign powers, the Americans, and the Japanese," says a leading scholar. "The young people in Taiwan have forgotten their history," says a member of a leading party think tank in Beijing. "They have been influenced by the Americans."

A similar rationale is on offer to explain the new democracy movement in Hong Kong.

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