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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003

Ball now in China's court on Taiwan independence

HONG KONG -- With the Taiwan presidential election less than three months away, the behavior of the incumbent, President Chen Shui-bian, and that of the opposition Kuomintang candidate, Lien Chan, shows just how much things have changed in the last decade.

Whereas in 1992 about 45 percent of the population considered themselves Chinese rather than Taiwanese, only 9 percent now identify themselves as Chinese. By contrast, a recent survey by the China Times shows that 50 percent now consider themselves as exclusively Taiwanese rather than Chinese. This is a major shift in the political landscape and the trend is likely to continue.

That to a large extent explains the antics of Chen, who has been playing to growing independence sentiment by proposing a referendum urging the removal of the hundreds of missiles on the China coast aimed at Taiwan as well as the draft of a new constitution.

It also explains why Chen's opponent, Lien, has had to repeatedly reverse himself on these issues, first opposing the president's initiatives and then supporting them.

Last week, the Kuomintang went so far as to say that it was now prepared to accept Taiwan independence -- rather than eventual reunification with mainland China -- as the ultimate choice of the people. Lien on Saturday reversed himself by embracing Chen's formulation that there was "one country on each side" of the Taiwan Strait. In the past, he had strongly opposed this formula, first used by Chen in August 2002.

The last few months have been marked by Chen's vigorous onslaught on the Kuomintang, with the president in effect accusing the opposition of betraying Taiwan by favoring reunification with mainland China.

"Chen has been trying hard to give Lien a 'red hat' and brand him a supporter of the Chinese Communists in order to scare the voters away from him," a Kuomintang spokesman said in explaining the shift in the party's position. "This is one way to check Chen's attempt."

The Kuomintang's about-faces on crucial matters of principle reflect its awareness of the major shifts in political sentiment on the island. It fears that adherence to a "one China" policy may cost it the election in March. As a result, there is now a new political consensus in Taiwan, with both the ruling and opposition parties agreeing, in effect, that Taiwan and mainland China are separate countries.

Chen, in the mean time, has been enjoying the discomfiture of his challenger. On Sunday, he said the electorate should vote for him rather than for "a parrot."

It is no doubt deeply troubling for Beijing to realize that there is now no major political party in Taiwan that advocates eventual political reunification. However, Chinese officials no doubt realize that Lien is being forced by the exigencies of the election campaign to take these positions and believe that, if elected, his position will still be much more conciliatory than that of Chen.

Beijing should also realize that the transformation of the sense of national identity of the people of Taiwan cannot be attributed entirely to four years of rule by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Rather, it is the result of long years of alienation from China fueled by perceived threats and bullying by the mainland.

In particular, Beijing's opposition for even an observer's role in the World Health Organization for Taiwan during the height of the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome caused many people on the island to doubt Beijing's insistence that it really has the Taiwanese people's interests at heart.

The arrogant Chinese attitude was particularly underlined by the callous remark of a Chinese official at the meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva earlier this year, after Taiwan had failed in its attempt to join the world health body. That official, Sha Zukang, said crudely that "nobody cares" what happens to Taiwan.

Actually, even at this late date, it may be possible for China to salvage the situation and improve its standing with the people of Taiwan and, at the same time, put the Chen government in an impossible position. All China has to do is to propose observer status in the WHO for Taiwan, calling it a province of China, a special region, or whatever. With China acting as sponsor, there would be no opposition, and Taiwan would automatically be admitted.

The people of Taiwan would certainly be delighted by such a turn of events. It would then be up to the Chen administration to decide either to reject this offer of membership or to accept that Taiwan is, indeed, part of "one China."

The question is whether China will be flexible enough to take such a step.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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