April 10th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic underclass behind marriage and fertility decline

EDITORIAL: Uncommunicative patients - a call on our compassion

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham Iraq gaffe signals the honeymoon is over

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The next Four Corners? / Granada

SOCIETY: Who benefits from drugs?

AGRICULTURE: Farmers rallying to fight for industries

ECONOMY: Australia's foreign debt set to grow

The Passion (letter)

Sugar prices (letter)

Tobacco and pharmaceuticals (letter)

Ageing population (letter)

ETHICS: The ethical responsibility of a Christian politician

ECONOMY: US-Australia Free trade agreement and the national interest

TAIWAN ELECTION: Saved by commonsense

PAKISTAN: Inside Pakistan's nuclear weapons program

HONG KONG: Poll battle looms over democratic reforms

BOOKS: Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony, by Owen Harries

FILM REVIEW: The Last Samurai

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Saved by commonsense

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, April 10, 2004
Taiwan has been on the verge of chaos following the narrow win of President Chen Shui-bian in the presidential elections held on Saturday, March 20. It was the worst possible result - a narrow win, by less than 30,000 votes in an electorate of 12 million.

The election was a nasty affair, with charges, and counter-charges, of corruption. President Chen tried to turn the election into a vote on his two anti-China referendums, but in the event, both referendums failed to attract the required 50 per cent of votes.

But by far the most extraordinary event was the attempted assassination on the eve of the election of President Chen and his running mate Vice President Annette Lu. They were riding in an open jeep in Chen's home town of Tainan in southern Taiwan. Chen suffered a light wound in the stomach and Annette Lu was shot in the knee, also a minor injury.

Unknown attackers

The shooting occured as firecrackers were going off in the dense crowd. The gunman or gunmen were not apprehended - in fact, no one has the slightest idea who he was. The public is deeply suspicious of the shooting, which had the effect of swinging Chen a sympathy vote that allowed him to win the election.

Now, the opposition "pan-blue" alliance - a coalition of the long-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party and its breakaway party, the People First Party - are demanding a recount and a new election. There is no provision in Taiwan's electoral act for a recount and, if left to the courts alone, the recount wouldn't be completed for six months or more.

Many people believe the assassination attempt was staged by President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), though wiser heads put it down to a gambler not wanting to lose money on the election, as gambling on the poll was massive and Chen's victory was a big win for the bookies, who had been holding a lot of money for the "pan-blue" to win.

Aside from the usual accusations of ballot rigging, the main beef of the "pan-blue" was that Chen called a military alert, which allegedly kept many police and army personnel - who favor the "pan-blue" - from voting. This allegation has been denied by senior officials, but the whole shooting affair is shrouded in mystery.

The United States, which is the sole guarantor of Taiwan's security, is said to have sought an assurance from the "pan-blue" leadership that they would use only legal means to try to reverse the result.

The other major party with an interest in the result, the People's Republic of China (PRC), has said it will intervene in Taiwan if the nation declares independence, or in the event of social chaos or outside intervention by a third power. They are deeply suspicious of Chen - many would say with good reason - who has actively pursued a "de-Sinocisation" policy.

The people of Taiwan, with the exception of the descendants of the indigenous inhabitants, are all Han Chinese, but there is a divide between the "Taiwanese," who migrated from southern China beginning in the 17th century, and the "mainlanders" who arrived after Chiang Kai-shek moved the seat of government to Taiwan.

Chen's policy has been to sharpen the ethnic divide by turning the Taiwanese against the KMT.

The end result has been that Chen and the DPP won the election, without getting a convincing mandate for their policy of moving towards independence. Chen has said he wants a referendum on a new constitution for Taiwan - something the PRC regards as tantamount to a declaration of independence - with a new State proclaimed in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics.

It is obvious that Chen is gambling on the assumption that China will not invade in the Olympics year. Whether this will work remains to be seen, but Chen always has former President Lee Teng-hui prodding at his back. Lee is the island's prime mover in the independence push and still wields a lot of power behind the scenes.

In the short term, the outlook is for more instability, but the longer terms seems to depend on the common sense of the people of Taiwan. International investors do not see any major impact on Taiwan's world-leading electronics and computer industries. Taiwan is growing closer and closer to the PRC economically and the PRC recently displaced the US as Taiwan's biggest export market. Taiwan businessmen have invested some US$100 billion in the China mainland and would whole-heartedly support closer relations between Taiwan and the cross-strait giant.

In a strange way, democracy has been the winner. No-one thinks that the military will intervene, and apart from a few isolated incidents, the "pan-blue" protests have been peaceful.

Jeff Babb

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