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Taiwan Strait: A gulf of difference
By Wong Kwok Wah

TAIPEI - Located on Zhongxiao Road East, the Executive Yuan is the central nervous system of Taiwan. Every morning over the past few days, a protester has been putting up a banner that accuses the incumbent President Chen Shui-bian and his predecessor, Lee Tung-hui, of playing "black-gold politics" - trading political favors for illegal gain.

Yet the serious allegation has not hit the headlines - not because the indigenous press is gagged, but because the protester was dismissed as irrelevant, a crackpot.

"He's a maniac. Not only the news media ignore him, but also the gate-keeping guards have had enough and do not give a damn about him now, though they did intervene somewhat at first," a veteran political reporter said.

However, on the other rim of the Taiwan Strait, it is unthinkable that even a barking dog would be left alone, allowed to have its say outside the central-government offices. As a matter of fact, anyone chanting slogans outside official office buildings - such as the central government at Xinhuamen, East Chang'an Avenue in Beijing, or the Hong Kong administration on Lower Albert Road - is apprehended immediately.

The incident, trivial as it may seem, reflects the tremendous differences between the mainland and Taiwan in political, social and cultural attitudes. Therefore, anyone obsessed with the perspective of Beijing, or even Hong Kong, simply fails to grasp the reality of the island.

On February 14, Valentine's Day, the two presidential candidates in the March 20 election clashed in their first debate, televised nationally. President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) faced off with Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT).

Debate highlight: 'I don't beat my wife'
Chen's declaration of "I don't beat my wife" stole the show and dominated all Chinese media afterward. Soon, his words were bitterly condemned for implicitly decrying Lien as a wife-abuser. Even Mrs Lien openly challenged the president to show evidence.

No one imagined that the debate would develop into such a farce. The consensus on both the mainland and in Hong Kong is that it proves the baseness and very vulgarity of both candidates, Chen in particular. But no one bothers to dig out the story behind his declaration.

The fact was that before the debate, the two hopefuls were invited to comment on Valentine's Day. Mainlanders may wonder what the big deal is or what it has to do with the election. Such a query, however, would itself demonstrate grave ignorance.

Maybe to the amazement of people on the mainland and even those in Hong Kong, Valentine's Day counts as much in Taiwan as the traditional Chinese New Year. Even Annette Lu and James Soong, running for vice president on the Chen and Lien tickets respectively, sent their festive Valentine's Day wishes from other locations.

So it is quite normal that the two candidates make open pledges to their beloved partners on this day. But Chen dealt a vicious card with his "I don't beat my wife" comment, and he may have intended subtly to undermine the coalition between Lien Chan and James Soong of the People First Party. The reason: he was more or less imitating Soong's similar remarks four years ago when the blue duo faced off against each other in the last presidential campaign.

Thus Chen expressing pride in a loving relationship with his wife is understandable, but that doesn't insulate him from accusations of using smear tactics. Actually, however, it was Lien Chan who initiated the mud-throwing: he scoffed at Chen's short stature as he commented on his rival being provided a podium on which to stand.

Beijing fails to understand Taiwan - at its peril
To the man in the street on the mainland, the Taiwan issue is merely after-dinner chat that does not merit serious deliberation. But to the Beijing government, failure to understand anything truly about the island will only have devastating consequences.

On voting day, March 20, voters will choose a president and decide on Chen's "defensive referendum". Voters will be asked whether to ask China not to aim its 496 missiles at the island as at present and, if China refuses, whether to seek advanced military defense systems. Chen's supporters, called the "green camp", are still pinning their hopes on the Chinese Communist Party - which has been ranting that the referendum is the first step toward independence - to make strong and alienating responses, such as menacing military exercises. Any such move by China would fuel Taiwanese hatred for Beijing and consequently attract more votes to the greens.

Meanwhile, the greens appear to believe that the United States will provide them asylum and sanctuary before Beijing makes serious military moves, such as launching missiles.

The mainland has appeared to know quite well about Chen's wishful thinking. So far the only countermeasure it has taken is playing the Taiwanese spy card - saying it arrested Taiwanese spies on the mainland - which dealt a blow to the green camp.

But Chen can gather ammunition from another city, Hong Kong. Beijing's recent warning that Hong Kongers' longing for democracy and human rights equals anti-patriotism has ignited even more loathing in Taiwan. The comments by An Min, vice minister for commerce, "Love the country, love the Party," might be translated on Taiwan as: "Choose the island, choose the Democratic Progressive Party" of President Chen.

Beijing's corridors of power should never forget that the chances of handling the Taiwan issue effectively and comprehensively are remote, to say the least, unless Beijing's leaders are more prepared to learn.

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Feb 21, 2004

Valentine yes, 'Vagina Monologues' no
(Feb 18, '04)

More tangled tales of Taiwan politics
(Jan 30, '04)

China's rants aid Taiwan referendum
(Jan 23, '04)


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