A week after China used bullets to quell protests in Tibet, voters in Taiwan used ballots to throw one party from office and put another in. The March 22 election was the second time this "Chinese democracy" saw a transfer of power, serving as a model for what China could be.
The election for president helped cement the return to power of the Nationalist Party (KMT), the anti-communist group that fled to the island in 1949 after China's civil war. The once-authoritarian party ruled over the native Taiwanese until it allowed democracy in 1987. After losing the presidency in 2000 and now regaining it, the KMT's new generation of leaders face a different dynamic across the Taiwan Strait: China is much more of an economic giant and more of a military threat with over 1,000 missiles aimed at an island it claims.
But democracies are funny, wonderful things, especially when they enjoy the safety of an American defense umbrella: The continuing threat from China wasn't much of an issue in the campaign and, in fact, even the old identity debate between native Taiwanese and mainlanders seemed to fade. (Only 5 percent of Taiwan's 23 million people now describe themselves as "Chinese.")
As in many democracies, Taiwan centered its campaign on the economy – the world's 17th largest – as well as on ending divided government and curbing corruption. The winner by a 17-point margin was Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-trained lawyer, former mayor of the capital, and son of mainlanders. He won with a clean image and a promise to speed up economic ties to China, which has become Taiwan's biggest export market.
But voters were also fed up with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which tried to play the ethnicity card, and President Chen Shui-bian. The DPP's losing candidate, Frank Hsieh, had to distance himself from Mr. Chen, whose cloud of corruption and clumsy attempts to declare independence for Taiwan only helped isolate the nation. Voters in Taiwan still want world recognition but not the constant tweaking of Beijing's nose.
With the KMT now in control of both the presidency and the legislature, Taiwan stands a better chance of resuming talks with Beijing, which could include such "confidence-building" steps as a draw down of military forces along the strait. But such a warming of ties should not come at the expense of Taiwan purchasing the weapons it still needs to match the mainland's rising military threat. Nor should Beijing demand preconditions to talks, such as Taiwan accepting China's notion of sovereignty over the island.
Time is on Taiwan's side as its democracy matures and its de facto independence becomes widely accepted. The "new" KMT cannot now return to its old authoritarian, corrupt ways or it will lose the very US support that keeps Taiwan from being swallowed by the dragon and allows democracy to flourish.
The US showed its resolve to defend Taiwan in 1996 during a cross-strait crisis in which China lobbed "test" missiles toward the island. Now this potential flash point of Asia has used its democracy once again to show the world – and especially China – how a people can collectively correct their leaders through ballots instead of bullets.
Will Beijing ever get the point?