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Chen Tests Patience of Loyalists In Taiwan

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 9, 2005

TAINAN, Taiwan -- President Chen Shui-bian's new willingness to reconsider his long-standing drive for Taiwanese independence has provoked charges of betrayal and risked alienation of his core supporters.

Following his election five years ago, Chen consistently encouraged loyalists' hopes that he would one day turn Taiwan, which China still claims, into a fully independent country. Now, with his praise for recent visits by two political rivals to the Chinese mainland, he has muted and perhaps relinquished that aim in favor of seeking a negotiated peace -- an end to the state of war that has gripped the Taiwan Strait for more than a half-century.

Disillusionment with Chen is especially evident in this tropical southern city, the president's home town and a governing party stronghold, where some suggest he has abandoned the cause of self-determination.

"He has compromised his principles," said Wang Sing-nan, a legislator and member of Chen's governing Democratic Progressive Party who hails from Tainan. "If Chen feels that Taiwan becoming a sovereign, independent country has become a burden, than perhaps there should be a separation. We have a leader who has lost his ability to lead."

Chen incensed party supporters last week when he first criticized but then blessed the recent visit to China by the head of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party, Lien Chan. Polls show that a slim majority of Taiwanese favored the trip as a potential icebreaker in dealings with China, but three-fourths of the governing party's supporters opposed it. Many saw it as a blow to the island's security, noting that it came only weeks after China passed a law that formalized threats to attack Taiwan if it pursued independence.

Chen has also drawn fire for declaring a 10-point consensus on cross-strait policy with James Soong, head of another opposition group, the People First Party, which favors reunification with China. The agreement included a pledge that Chen would not alter Taiwan's constitution. Some construed the pledge as a rejection of his party's long-standing aim to draft a new charter moving toward independence.

Some political analysts suggest that Chen could be Taiwan's version of Richard M. Nixon, recalling how it took a hard-line U.S. president to persuade Americans to embrace relations with Communist China. As the theory goes, Chen's pro-independence credentials could allow him to lead his supporters to accept dialogue with China if he cast it as a means of defending sovereignty. But interviews with lawmakers from Chen's party and with constituents reveal that Chen has already pushed too far for many supporters, risking substantial defections.

"Within the DPP, I don't think there's any more room to go," said Hsiao Bi-khim, a Democratic Progressive legislator from Taipei. "The party at large is not willing to compromise as President Chen is personally. He wants to make a legacy, but he is operating under very, very constrained and difficult circumstances."

Support for the Democratic Progressives has eroded steadily in recent weeks, according to public opinion polls, worrying lawmakers ahead of National Assembly elections set for Saturday. One poll showed DPP support slipping from about 40 percent on April 20 to about 33 percent last week. Ruling party lawmakers have been inundated by calls from angry constituents.

At issue is the future of the island territory where the Nationalists who once ruled mainland China took refuge after they were routed by Communist forces in 1949. Despite China's claims that the island is part of its territory, most Taiwanese now see themselves as a separate people living in a separate country, even as they differ on how to safeguard that status.

Chen has cemented his identity as an advocate of independence by pressing for a new constitution and for a change of the island's name from the Republic of China to Taiwan. Now that he has shelved that agenda, a different image has taken hold -- that of a crafty politician who used pro-independence sentiments to amass support.

Chen has twice won presidential elections by stirring up divisions between those who see themselves as Taiwanese and those who favor a place in a larger Chinese orbit. But he is limited to two terms in office, which some analysts say frees him to take risks that may alienate his base.

"People are fed up with the stalemate and the tension," said Antonio Chiang, a former National Security Council official in Chen's government. Chen "has never been for independence for ideological purposes. He just played the issue for the election. Basically, he's very pragmatic."

Analysts and party leaders say Chen's shift reflects his calculation that independence is a lost cause. Taiwanese increasingly eschew the idea of confrontation with China, and the Bush administration has chastised Chen for provoking the Beijing government, raising doubts about whether the United States would come to the island's aid in a war. That leaves Chen with only one way of securing a significant place in history: reaching out to China.

In December, the president's party failed to win a majority in the national legislature, leaving him with insufficient support to pursue his domestic agenda, in particular a military spending bill. Chen then turned to Soong's pro-unification party for help.

"From a domestic point of view, he had to do something to break out of the dilemma," said Chu Yun-han, a political scientist at National Taiwan University in Taipei. "There's no way he can address the concerns of the hard-core independence supporters. What they are asking him to do is simply not feasible."

Seeking a compromise with China presents its own challenges. Until recently, China has demonized Chen, though there are signs Beijing officials may now be open to dealing with him. Both sides have drawn lines that complicate a search for compromise. Communist Party leaders have long insisted that they will not discuss peace until Taiwan accepts the "one China" principle, acknowledging the island as part of China. Chen has repeatedly refused. But recently, his government has shown a desire to find a middle way.

During his visit to the mainland, Lien Chan, the Nationalist leader, affirmed the so-called 1992 consensus, in which the two sides supposedly accepted the one China principle while agreeing to disagree about what it meant. Chen's government says no consensus ever existed, but it has floated the idea of resuming dialogue by agreeing to pick up where talks left off in 1992. In an interview, Chen's top cross-strait policy official, Joseph Wu, said that formulation could give China a version of the concession it has long demanded.

"What the Chinese side would hear is 'one China,' " Wu said. "There's room to do that. What we are trying to do is create something where both sides can claim victory."

But here in his home town, Chen's supporters would see treachery in any compromise that accepted the one-China concept. "The DPP supporters would leave the DPP," warned Tainan's mayor, Hsu Tain-tsair.

China has recently pressed a charm offensive aimed at winning favor in Taiwan. Last week, it lifted tariffs on Taiwanese fruit reaching the mainland, including mangoes and honeydew melons -- major crops here. The mayor said that might please farmers in the short term but could weaken Taiwan by making its economy reliant on good relations with its adversary.

"We don't trust China," he said.

China has also offered to give Taiwan a pair of pandas.

As Wang, the ruling party legislator, sat in his office here greeting disenchanted constituents, he heard little warmth expressed toward the president.

"He has betrayed his mandate," said Lin Young-pin, a doctor. "I don't feel safe about the future of our country."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company