China in a Strait Jacket

Taiwan's identity as a nation separate from China hangs on a ballot recount of Saturday's squeaker election for president.

The recount has Beijing, Washington, and even Hong Kong on edge. In fact, one newspaper in Hong Kong (which faces its own critical election in September), reports that China's military is on alert. If true, that would be typical of Beijing's heavy-handed way of trying to influence Taiwan's vibrant and oft-times chaotic democracy.

If the currently declared winner and incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, survives the recount, he will probably move his island nation further toward official independence over the next four years.

But a victory for his main opponent, Lien Chan, would restore the long-time ruling party, the Nationalists, which would please China no end. That would restore the ambiguity of Taiwan's status as part of China but run by a different system.

A loss for Mr. Lien, who was born on the mainland like many old-time Nationalists, would mean he'd have to step down, leaving his party to a younger generation of native Taiwanese who sympathize with Chen's views on independence.

On Sunday, Beijing once again asked the Bush administration for help in pushing Taiwan its way. The US seems to prefer stability in China-Taiwan relations, but can hardly ignore a free election that, if accurate, shows Chen more popular than in his 2000 win. In fact, in separate action, Washington asked the United Nations on Monday to condemn Beijing's human rights record.

That move, plus agitation in Hong Kong for direct elections and Chen's apparent victory, can only help persuade Beijing that it's time for a new "mandate from heaven," namely democracy and civil liberties.

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