Taiwan Outcome

21 March 2004

Taiwan: The Best Possible Outcome

By Gwynne Dyer

“If Chen loses, the chances of war are about 20 percent,”said Arthur Ting of Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, only days before the vote on 20 March in which President Chen Shui-bian was seeking re-election. “If he wins, the risk rises to 40 percent.” He won.

His margin of victory was narrow: 50.12 percent of the votes for President Chen, versus 49.88 percent for Lien Chan of the Kuomintang. Only 27,000 votes separate the two men, less than a tenth of the total number of spoiled ballots, and the KMT has already demanded a recount.

But Chen won, and everybody assumed that would mean trouble with Communist China, whose official statements have got steadily angrier as Chen’s Democratic People’s Party (DPP) edged closer to declaring independence. Last December Colonel Luo Yuan of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences warned that “Chen has reached the mainland’s bottom line on the Taiwan question….If they refuse to come to their senses and continue…they will push Taiwan compatriots into the abyss of war.”

Yet Chen said in his acceptance speech that his victory marks “a new era for peace across the Taiwan Strait,” the 100-mile (160-km) body of water that separates Taiwan from the People’s Republic of China. Does he really believe that Beijing, which fired missiles over Taiwan during its first presidential elections in 1996 and broke off talks with Taipei entirely after the DPP won in 2000, will talk to him now that he has won again?

Not right away, but he probably thinks that it will in the end. The thing about Chen is that he is used to dealing with totalitarian regimes. He know that no matter how fearsome they seem, no matter how loudly they swear that they will kill everybody before budging from their current position, in the end they generally do have to talk, because they really do live on the same planet as everybody else.

Chen grew up fighting against Taiwan’s own totalitarians, the Kuomintang, who had retreated to the island in 1949 after losing the civil war with the Communists on the mainland. The KMT were totalitarians of the right who ruled Taiwan with an iron fist for forty years, and they were just as brutal as their rivals on the mainland: Chen’s wife Wu Shu-chen is still in a wheelchair after a 1985 murder attempt in which she was hit by a truck and then run over three times. Every leading member of the DPP has spent years in jail for opposing the KMT.

Now Taiwan is a democracy, and the KMT is the opposition party. It is no longer dedicated to re-conquering mainland China, and doesn’t even give lip service to reunification any more: KMT presidential candidate Lien Chan promised that Taiwan “would never merge, be taken over, or united with the People’s Republic of China.” The lesson is clear: don’t listen to what they say; figure out what they are going to do in the end. Generally, that is much less fearsome.

Chen and his opposite numbers in Beijing are both just making the usual politician’s calculations about what will play well in the domestic political marketplace, and balancing that against what will work in the wider economic and international arena. For Beijing, talking loudly about Taiwan’s indissoluble bonds with the motherland plays well with a local public that no longer responds to Communist rhetoric but is strongly nationalistic. For Chen in Taiwan, it works the other way around: most Taiwanese would like to be independent from China, so he plays that card domestically.

However, China would be hugely reluctant to invade Taiwan even if it were militarily feasible, because the resulting crisis would kill economic growth at home and might eventually bring the Communist regime down. Chen knows that, and he never goes far enough to goad Beijing into attacking anyway. He was running 10 points behind the KMT only two weeks ago, mainly because Taiwan’s economy is stagnant and unemployment is almost five percent, so he needed the independence issue to close the gap — and he counted on Beijing to understand. It almost certainly does.

Was the assassination attempt the day before the election another political stunt? Certainly not. No hired gun on earth could fire a handgun at a man in a moving car and be sure of grazing his stomach — Chen needed fourteen stitches — but be equally sure of not killing him. The attempt was real, and Chen was doubly lucky, for he survived, and then he got the sympathy vote.

Now he’s back in office for another four years (barring a recount that reverses the outcome, which is unlikely). Will he vigorously pursue Taiwan’s independence? Of course not. As he fully expected, he lost a referendum that was supposed to set the precedent for Taiwan holding a real referendum on independence later on: for the outcome to be valid, fifty percent of the voters in the presidential election had to ask for a referendum ballot, and since the KMT told its supporters to boycott the referendum, there was no risk of that happening.

The referendum failed, and Chen is free to carry on as before. Just maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence has produced ample rewards for most people, and they are not thirsting after martyrdom in the name of some political ideal. Neither is Chen: the crisis was never real.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (Chen…domestically”;and “Was…vote”)