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Taiwan Steps Forward

Sunday, March 19, 2000; Page B06

BY ELECTING the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party leader Chen Shui-bian as president, the people of Taiwan have taken a major step toward consolidation of their country's democracy. For the first time, control of the executive branch will pass peacefully from the Nationalist Party, which has ruled the island since Chiang Kai-shek fled the Communist mainland in 1949. And while the vote revolved largely around the Nationalists' perceived corruption, it is clearly another sign of the Taiwanese people's refusal to let their political status be decided by the bullying of Beijing. The Chinese government, military and media issued a barrage of pointed threats before the vote, ham-handedly trying to stave off a Chen victory. It backfired--further proof of how little the Chinese Communists comprehend democratic politics or the island they claim as theirs. It's unclear what frightened and angered Beijing more: the risk of losing the "province" across the Taiwan Straits, or the spectacle of 22 million Chinese peacefully deposing the party that has governed them for the last 50 years.

Of course, Taiwan cannot openly provoke Beijing. Moreover, Mr. Chen won with just 39 percent of the vote, so he will need to govern with deference toward the views of those Taiwanese who are more cautious toward independence than he; the Nationalists still wield clout in parliament and the security services. Mr. Chen has shown that he understands these realities: During the campaign, he prudently pledged not to hold a referendum on independence; after his victory, he immediately offered to make a "journey of reconciliation" to meet with China's leaders.

Still, his election again raises questions about the "one China" policy to which the United States has adhered since President Nixon's meeting with Mao Zedong in 1972. At the time, the mainland and Taiwan were governed by dictatorial parties that considered themselves the rightful rulers of both territories. China's Communists still cling to both their claim on Taiwan and to absolute power, but Taiwan's Nationalists evolved in a different direction--to the point where they have now ceded the presidency to the party of democracy and independence. Increasingly, the question confronting the Clinton administration is how to keep the peace in a world where China seems more and more determined to divert attention from internal problems through international assertion--but where the Taiwanese are, and should remain, free to decide their own future.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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