Far East faceoff

International | Voters in Taiwan defy China's threats, elect new president

Issue: "Bosnian relief," March 30, 1996

It was a strange scene: On election day last Saturday in Taiwan's capital of Taipei, the normally bustling streets were almost empty and many of the shops were shuttered. Dominating Jung Hsiao Street, Taipei's main thoroughfare, a huge billboard of President Lee Teng-hui, 73, and his running mate for re-election, Lien Chan, smiled down on the streets below.

As it turned out, President Lee had good reason to smile. The people of Taiwan shrugged off weeks of intimidation tactics literally aimed at them in the form of nuclear-capable missiles by their estranged parent across the sea, China, and elected Mr. Lee as Taiwan's first democratically selected president. Few could have forecast Mr. Lee's margin of victory of 54 percent, or the voter turnout with more than 76 percent of the 14 million-plus eligible voters casting ballots with no major irregularities reported.

"This is a historic moment," Mr. Lee told a flag-waving crowd at his victory party, as he alternated between Mandarin Chinese, English, and the native Taiwanese dialect. "The door of democracy is now completely open." Ironically, Mr. Lee's closest competitor, Peng Ming-min, 72, who took 2.3 million votes to Mr. Lee's 5.8 million, is even more pro-Taiwan independence than Mr. Lee, whom China has criticized for his Western leanings, including the fact he was educated in the United States.

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When China's intention to conduct massive missile tests near Taiwan first was announced on March 4 (China had been conducting military exercises around Taiwan for about 10 months), the tension in the air over Taipei grew thick. Applications for passports doubled, then tripled. Taiwanese began converting money into American dollars. The Taiwan stock market dropped by 62 points in a single day; ultimately it has fallen 625 points since July 1995. Some panicked and quickly bought gold. Travel abroad increased rapidly. And at evangelical Christ's College in Taipei, one professor's basement was cleaned out as a precautionary measure, should it be needed as a bomb shelter.

Many Taiwanese Christians in Taipei share the same sort of fears as their neighbors in Hong Kong, which is scheduled to be handed over to China by Britain in 1997, notes Kay Wheeler, editor of the evangelical publication, China Today. "A lot of them fear that they are going to get the same type of suppression and intimidation as their fellow believers in mainland China have experienced," she told WORLD. "The people in Taiwan are terrified."

But if the fear among Taiwanese is real, it seems to have only served eventually to heighten their resolve to resist China's bullying tactics. And Taiwanese spirits were bolstered when, two days after China fired three nuclear-capable missiles into the sea near Taiwan on March 8, the United States dispatched the first of two aircraft carriers to the region.

Some analysts, including the Heritage Foundation's Richard Fisher, claim President Clinton's actions were correct, but belated and "tragically weak" in the early stages of the crisis, especially "given the fact that early in 1996 a China official declared that China had plans prepared 'for a missile attack against Taiwan consisting of one conventional missile strike a day for 30 days.'"

Moreover, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states clearly that "it is the policy of the United States to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States." Ultimately on March 21, Congress voted 97-0 to declare China's efforts deplorable. The United States government also agreed to sell Taiwan an anti-aircraft missile system to bolster its defensive capacities.

Renewed American support was accompanied by bold words from Chinese exile and human-rights activist Harry Wu, who told a University of Oklahoma gathering that China wouldn't invade Taiwan because it couldn't afford to, describing Taiwan as China's "chicken that lays the golden egg." Perhaps most Taiwanese sense this too, since despite missiles exploding not far off their shoreline, daily life prior to Saturday's election ebbed back toward normalcy; the Taiwan dollar, which had taken a beating for weeks, rose to its original level of 27 Taiwan dollars to one U.S. dollar.

Only a day after Mr. Lee's election, China's Communist newspapers were reporting that Taiwan had chosen a "change in the way leaders are produced," rather than actually printing the dread D-word-"Democracy." Lee Teng-hui's camp was publicly insisting that the huge vote he received was not as much in favor of pursuing independence from China, but against Communist intimidation tactics. Said Mr. Lee to his hostile neighbors over the sea, "The election will send a clear message to the mainland authorities-you can't win people over by only pushing them around. In fact, it could backfire."


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