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For Taiwanese official, election chaos hits close to home

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000

As Taiwan's chief representative to the United States, C.J. Chen figured he knew a thing or two about the U.S. political system. Then came Nov. 7 and what proved to be the most contentious presidential election in American history.

"We had to look up "chad' in the dictionary," Chen says. "We couldn't find it."

Like other nations, Taiwan is following the vote-counting debacle with a mixture of bemusement, befuddlement and wary self-interest. As leader of the world's only superpower, whoever prevails in Florida could have a great influence on the dicey relationship between Communist-led mainland China and the 23-million Chinese who live in freedom and prosperity on the neighboring island of Taiwan.

A President Gore, it is often said, would be more apt to continue the Clinton administration's policy of engagement with China and thus be less inclined to protect Taiwan at any cost.

A President Bush, another scenario goes, might be more likely to build a missile defense system to shield the United States and its Asian allies, including Taiwan -- even if that meant angering China.

But Chen, on a visit to the Tampa Bay area last week, doesn't foresee any huge shift in U.S. policy toward Taiwan regardless of who ends up in the White House.

"Your policy was formed in the last 20 to 25 years with both major parties participating," he says. "Unless there's some dramatic upheavals or changes in your country or ours, I don't expect any dramatic changes" in policy.

On a smaller, less noticed scale, Taiwan is caught up in the same kind of bitter partisan wrangling that besets even established democracies like the United States during close-fought contests for political power.

Last March, a 51-year-old lawyer named Chen Shui-bian made history when he was elected Taiwan's new president. It marked the first democratic transition of power from one party to another since the Nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communist takeover of mainland China.

But Chen won just 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and his Democratic Progressive Party controls fewer than a third of the seats in Taiwan's legislature. The opposition Nationalist Party has been relentless in its criticism of Chen, whose popularity has plunged along with a sharp drop in Taiwan's stock market.

The new president's slim governing mandate "has caused some uncertainty and unease among the populace," says Chen, a comment that could just as well apply to the current U.S. situation.

But overall, Chen quickly adds, Taiwan remains a success story. It is the world's third largest exporter of computer products. Its economy is growing at more than 6 percent a year, when Japan and other countries are still struggling to recover from the Asian financial crisis. While Taiwan lagged the Philippines just 30 years ago, it now has a per capita income that is 13 times higher.

And, most importantly for Taiwan's long-term future, relations with China have warmed somewhat.

Although he once advocated Taiwan's independence, the new president said last summer that he accepted the idea of "one China" in principle. He later retreated a bit, questioning whether Taiwan and the mainland would ever be reunited, as China insists.

Still, the new government has taken steps to show "good will and sincerity" toward Beijing, as Chen puts it. Starting Jan. 1, Taiwan will permit reporters for China's state-controlled media to be based on the island. Starting in June, tourists from the mainland will be allowed to visit.

Meanwhile, indirect trade between China and Taiwan continues to soar, and Taiwanese business are investing heavily in mainland enterprises.

Taiwan has kept especially close watch on what's happened in Hong Kong since the thriving British colonly reverted to Chinese control in 1997. The "one country, two systems" model under which Hong Kong retained its currency, courts and other pillars of life is often cited as a way Taiwan could be peacefully reunited with mainland China.

"Since 1997, Hong Kong has had some difficulties economically and legally in coping with a central authority," Chen says. "But generaly speaking, I think Beijing has been trying to keep its promise of one country, two systems. It wants to show the world that this can work so perhaps it could be applied to Taiwan in the future."

However, 80 percent of Taiwanese still prefer the status quo in relations with their huge neighbor.

"Most people would like to see mainland China become freer, more prosperous and more democratic," Chen says. "Then it would be easier for us to see some kind of association with the mainland."

Although it no longer has a mutual defense pact with the United States, Taiwan continues to regard America as a benign big brother that would aggressively protect it in the event of a threatened invasion by China or other nation. The Taiwanese applaud the current signs of rapprochement between North and South Korea, but think it is too early for U.S. troops to withdraw from the Korean peninsula.

"That region is still evolving and it is still a potential danger," Chen says. "I know it might be a burden to our American friends but that (military presence) has helped tremendously the peace and stability of that region."

In the meantime, Taiwan's new president struggles to bring together his own country's feuding factions, although he vows not to reconsider his controversial decision to halt work on a $5-billion nuclear plant. That issue is now before Taiwan's Supreme Court -- prompting Chen to draw another parallel with what's happening in the granddaddy of democracies, the United States.

"Whenever people have problems," he says, "the best thing is to let judges decide."

- Susan Martin can be contacted at

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