2008-03-31

Taiwan's Election

An editorial that appeared in the Boston Globe yesterday.

Taiwan's Message for Beijing

The triumph of the Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the recent presidential election in Taiwan augurs a welcome reduction in tensions with mainland China. The winner's 17-point margin of victory also reaffirms a virtue of democratic accountability: a free people's power to change leaders when those leaders and their policies lose the confidence of the electorate.

There is a danger that Beijing will view Ma's victory merely as a rejection of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, and his pursuit of formal independence - and as confirmation that China's policy of threats and pressure produced the desired results. China's leaders are sure to be gratified that only 35 percent of Taiwan's voters said yes to a referendum, proposed by Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, that called for the island to seek United Nations membership under the name Taiwan. Beijing would consider that a virtual declaration of independence by its breakaway province.

But the authorities in Beijing would be making a mistake if they indulge in too much self-congratulation. The voters of Taiwan could hardly be indifferent to China's pre-election meddling, but they were acting on their own practical self-interest when they chose the moderate Ma over the DPP's Frank Hsieh.

Much of Ma's appeal was rooted in pocketbook issues. The former mayor of Taipei wants to boost the island's faltering growth rate by expanding commercial relations with the mainland. He favors direct air and maritime connections across the Taiwan Strait and lower barriers to investment in mainland enterprises, which already totals more than $100 billion. He called for a "one-China common market" and the signing of a tension-reducing peace treaty with Beijing.

China's President Hu Jintao and his ruling circle should read Taiwan's vote not simply as a rejection of Chen's intemperate call for de jure independence, but also as popular support for continuing the status quo. Ma recently summarized, as a policy of three "nots," how he intends to fulfill the popular will: "not to get independent, not to be united, and not to use military."

China did not win the election in Taiwan. On the contrary, the voters of Taiwan were showing their neighbors on the mainland what they are missing by living under an unelected authoritarian regime. By cracking down recently on dissent in Tibet - instead of granting that region genuine autonomy within China - Beijing has only damaged its case for reunification with Taiwan. And if China's rulers want someday to lure Taiwan into rejoining the motherland, they will first have to allow their citizens to choose their own government.

The authors read the post-election tea leaves well. This is an accurate assessment of why Taiwan's people voted as they did. Only time will tell whether the predictions ('China didn't win') are as accurate.

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