The Magazine

Democracy Makes All the Difference

China mavens are in denial about the meaning of the Taiwan election

Apr 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 28 • By JOHN BOLTON
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NO SOONER HAD opposition candidate Chen Shui-bian triumphed in Taiwan's presidential election on March 18 than apologists for Beijing rushed to adopt either of two contrary positions: The scaremongers warned that tensions across the Taiwan Strait would rise and the risk of military conflict grow, for Chen's Democratic Progressive party (DPP) has favored independence for Taiwan -- anathema to China. The more sanguine of the pro-Beijing crowd, meanwhile, argued that neither Chen nor his party really believed in independence any more; President Chen, they predicted, would not deviate greatly from the course either of his defeated opponents would have followed had he prevailed, and the "one China" formula beloved of Beijing and the Clinton administration would remain undisturbed.

What all the Beijing mavens had in common was denial. They studiously avoided mentioning that those inconvenient voters in Taiwan had ignored State Department instructions and insisted on making their own decisions. In fact, the results in Taiwan mark a change in the geopolitics of East Asia that is potentially enormous. And, the scaremongers notwithstanding, the result should be not an increase in tensions across the Taiwan Strait, but an increase in the illegitimacy of Beijing's rulers. In addition, Chen's election almost certainly marks a new round in the Washington power struggle over China policy between the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration.

While not flawless, the Taiwanese election went smoothly. A no-holds-barred campaign demonstrated the strong roots here of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Eighty-two percent of the voters turned out, proving that Taiwan's citizens prize the right to vote and understood that they were offered a meaningful choice. The moment belongs to Chen and the DPP, but president Lee Teng-hui played a pivotal role in bringing about Taiwan's second democratic presidential election. Although demonstrations and "rioting" by disgruntled supporters of the longtime ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), dominated the postelection headlines, these relatively small protests reflect continuing tensions among KMT supporters dismayed by their defeat, not any repudiation of the election itself. Lee, even while resigning as KMT chairman, has already begun preparations for a calm and efficient transfer of power, the next critical step in the maturation of popular rule.

The election means that foreign leaders can no longer talk over the heads of the people of Taiwan, a point they should have realized, but didn't, in dealing with President Lee. Right through the election, the Clinton administration showed its inability to come to grips with reality on the island by trying to manage Taiwan as if it were run by mandarins rather than elected politicians. Just as U.S. diplomacy has to take into account the working of European democracies -- and European diplomacy has to take into account America's domestic politics -- so Washington must now internalize the reality that the president of Taiwan has as much popular legitimacy as the president of the United States.

But even more important, Beijing has to worry that its citizens, as they learn of the Taiwanese election, will immediately understand its implications. If the KMT can be peacefully removed from power on Taiwan, why should the Communists on the mainland be any different? One immediate question is whether Beijing will now attempt to curb the limited popular sovereignty it has allowed in Hong Kong. From Beijing's point of view, a completely free political system confined to Taiwan is bad enough; the prospect of the virus spreading across the mainland must be far worse.

Chen's victory also means that the open warfare over China policy between Republican leaders in Congress and President Clinton will intensify. Permanent normal trade relations between the United States and the PRC, already in jeopardy in Congress, are now even more uncertain. The outcome depends in large measure on how China reacts to Chen's victory in the next several weeks. If Beijing remains mostly quiet and refrains from any bellicose rhetoric or actual military action, permanent normal trade relations may be approved before the Fourth of July recess. But if Beijing unleashes a barrage of criticism of the "renegade province" and its bothersome voters, permanent normal trade relations may be dead for the rest of this election year.