TAIPEI - Great concern without a trace of schadenfreude characterizes the extensive coverage here of the disasters that are striking China, on the other side of the Taiwan Strait - the mining disaster, the third in two weeks, the bird flu and "its real dimensions," the grave chemical leak in Jilin Province and, of course, the killing of demonstrators in the village of Dongzhou (one of 74,000 clashes during the past year, according to local reports). Dramatic as the events may be, they are dwarfed by the interest in the political earthquake that is occurring on the island itself, the shock waves of which no doubt can certainly be felt in Beijing.
At the central election committee headquarters in Taipei, dozens of correspondents and observers expectantly awaited the results of the local elections that were held last week. A television reporter prepared a metal map on which she placed colored magnets representing the parties - green for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and blue for the nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which was exiled to the opposition in 2000 when the small island experienced the first historic reversal in its history. The great tension was evident in her face. Within an hour she had to inform the nation of another reversal. The greens were defeated. The map turned blue. The KMT won 14 of the 21 cities and counties at stake. The DPP managed to win a mere six.
President Chen Shui-bian's popularity has hit a record low. There are already those who see on the horizon - the 2008 presidential elections - the completion of the "reverse turnaround," this time at the national level.
The defeat is mainly connected to the domestic situation in Taiwan, but there are those who also see in it an expression of opposition to Chen's cross-strait policy - a tough policy that entirely negates Beijing's "one China" principle and centers on striving for full and not just de facto independence. By this interpretation, the voters are fed up with the finger that the president is giving Beijing. They have called upon him to adopt a more conciliatory line of opposition.
According to one assessment, Chen will have to swallow his pride and pursue a more flexible policy toward China. Others believe that he will in fact make his policy more rigid, if only in order to escape the image of becoming a "lame duck." According to another scenario, what has been will be - there will be neither a shift toward flexibility or rigidity, since ultimately Chen's policy is nothing but a compromise between a dream (independence de jure) and the reality (the status quo).
To the equation of relations must be added the way in which Beijing will
maneuver given the new situation, as well as the extent of support Taiwan will garner from the United States: In Israel, the United States' blocking of the defense deals with China was a wake-up call for some regarding the the nature of the Israeli-American relationship. In Taiwan, too, despite the different circumstances, there are those who fear that American support is not eternal: On the one hand they believe here that the United States will never abandon Taipei; only recently United States President George W. Bush praised Taiwanese democracy, "which should serve as a model for China."
But on the other hand, Bush is also no longer relating to China as "a strategic competitor," as he did in the past. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events of Tiananmen Square did not lead to "the end of history." A communist regime is in control of the economy whose growth is stirring envy around the world. The United States apparently thinks that China has gone beyond the point at which it is possible to prevent its dramatic economic and military rise. It realizes that in the end, the 21st century will not be "American," or at least not entirely. Therefore it is no longer talking about containing China. Now is a time for "constructive cooperation."
How does all this affect the eternal debate about the status quo that exists thanks to the American guarantees? Until not long ago the prevailing opinion in Taiwan was that "even if it takes 10, 50 or even 100 years, in the end China will become a democracy. Then, and only then, will we agree to unite the two countries." Today there are already those who see their day of surrender on the horizon: More than a million Taiwanese are living in China, investing there, doing business, studying and sometimes even keeping a second wife there. More than 2 million Taiwanese (almost one-tenth of the island's population) spend six months of the year or more there. About three-quarters of Taiwan's exports are destined for China. Even though 700 Chinese ballistic missiles are aimed at them, many Taiwanese see China's strengthening as less of a threat and more as an opportunity.
Does this mean that it is possible to argue that Taiwan is giving up its historic pretense to the title of "the real China"? Will it agree to become a victim of American acknowledgement of the existence of a second superpower?
Not so fast, say the analysts. As one of them put it: "[Apart from money] another two elements influence relations with China - the blood and the brain. The DNA of the 23 million Taiwanese is indeed almost identical to that of the 1.3 billion Chinese, but when you examine the brain, you discover that the Taiwanese think in a completely different way." In other words, they will not give up their democratic institutions and values. On this matter, the consensus in Taiwan is total. "Time may be working in China's favor," they explain here, "but God doesn't have much choice. Communism is anathema to him. He has to be with us."
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