Friday, March 19, 2004

Thoughts on the Presidential Election in Taiwan

The atmosphere in the United States has been so sharply polarized that I've stopped talking politics with the few Republicans I know in LA for fear of popping that protruding vein that throbs near my temple. It's almost impossible to even assume good faith anymore. Until the present administration took power, I've never thought of any of our country's leaders as unredeemable scumbags. But here are these guys campaigning and governing under a cloud of lies, wrecking fiscal havoc on the country and fermenting hatred of our country throughout the world. And to top it off, they get their rocks off demonizing secularists, urban dwellers, and educated types everywhere.

Yet the US is freaking Lothlorien compared to Taiwan. My mother, for example, refuses to get into a taxi that has a green flag (representing the DPP -- the ruling party). Political rants abuzz. Only place you might escape wingnut diatribes is a smoke filled pool hall, or maybe a movie theater. And here in the United States, my relatives, like other immigrants ultimately more concerned with politics of their native country than their adopted one, are more nutty and obsessive about Taiwanese politics than I am about American politics.

The Taiwanese presidential election is on March 20. Like Israel and maybe a few other small, endangered, and highly polarized countries, the election will offer two genuinely opposed visions. The incumbent, President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, wants to take dramatic steps to Taiwanese independence. His support comes largely from native Taiwanese in rural areas. His opponent, Lien Chan of the KMT, supported by mainlander population and the economic elite, wants to take a more moderate, reconciliatory approach with China. With 500 short-ranged missles aimed at Taiwan and $400 billion dollars worth of Taiwanese private investment in China, the stakes are awfully high. Life and death -- and Taiwan's economic well-being -- hangs in the balance.

Framed in that way, voting for Lien seems to be a no brainer. And riding a wave of voter discontent with the economy and Chinese relations, Lien seemed poised for a strong win against Chen. That was before Chen got shot last night. Now, with hours before the election, it's anyone's call. If the election in Spain is any guide, never underestimate last minute violence to alter election outcomes.

However, the election is as much about national and economic security as it is about identity and the island's troubled history. President Chen is a folk hero to the native Taiwanese population who were historically oppressed by the ruling Nationalist (KMT) party. Led by incompetent "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT party installed an alternative "Chinese" government in Taiwan after their defeat by the Communists in 1949, with the official goal of "re-taking China" from the Commies. Beyond such fantasies, the KMT were a brutal, corrupt authoritarian regime that snuffed out political opponents and attempted to wipe out the native Taiwanese dialect. The native Taiwanese, composing of 90% of the population, were disenfranchised as a result.

But Chiang's regime, propped up by the US (as part of their anti-Red China containment policy) also ushered in their tremendously successful export-oriented industrial strategy. By the 1980s, Taiwan was one of the "Four Dragons" -- an East Asian powerhouse which held the second largest foreign reserve in the world. But when the country finally became democratic in the 1990s, the Taiwanese elected a leader who spoke about Taiwanese national identity rather than economics. The native Taiwanese dialect, not Mandarin, became widely used. The old mainlander CEOs and political leaders were ousted, replaced by native Taiwanese. And most provocatively, the Taiwanese began to seriously talk about themselves as a nationally if not ethnically distinct people from the Chinese.

Both of my grandfathers were mainlanders who fled to China after Chiang's defeat. They were also major figures in Taiwan. My paternal grandfather was a deputy commissioner of police under the KMT. My maternal grandfather started one of the major government contracting firms, and he was one of the Chairmans ousted by the DPP in their mainlander purge. So my family is stridently pro-KMT and anti-Taiwanese, which has always made me uncomfortable, given that they're on the wrong side of history. But Chen has proven to be a rank ideologue, putting nationalist identity above national and economic security. So I'm hoping for a Lien win. My mom's and my grandfather's lives may be at stake. Heck the world order may be at stake. (I have little doubt that China would fire missles at Taiwan if Chen were to declare independence; that would lead to either a major war or embargoes that will lead to a major world recession.)

Election update!: Bush v. Gore redux. Lien, the candidate of the internationalists and urbanites, lose by a razor-thin margin and refuses to concede, demanding a recount. Less than 30,000 votes separate the two candidates out of about 15 million cast. Lien's party is insinuating that Chen staged a late-hour shooting of himself to generate sympathy votes, a story that everyone in my family has bought into.