A cautionary tale of political vanity
The moment I heard that Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian had been shot, I smelled trouble. There was bound to be public unrest, no matter who won the election. Coupled with the shooting incident, the winning margin was so thin that it was extremely difficult for the losing side to accept the result. With Mr Chen declared the winner, my fears came true. Yet, even if Kuomintang candidate Lien Chan had won, the same thing would have happened.
One crucial question on everybody's mind is: how is Beijing going to react? So far, the Taiwan Affairs Office has issued only one even-handed and emotionally detached statement, stating that they have noted what happened and will keep a close watch on developments.
The central government was fully prepared for Mr Chen to win. Even if Mr Lien had secured victory, Beijing knew that there was a very long way to go to peaceful reunification. The Democratic Progressive Party and the pan-green camp is, no doubt, heading towards independence, but the KMT and pan-blue alliance is definitely not moving in the opposite direction. In fact, Beijing does not really know which party is more difficult to deal with to achieve peaceful reunification. Chinese officials have found out the hard way that being overenthusiastic in regard to Taiwan's elections can be counterproductive.
Naturally, the central government is concerned about post-election developments, especially with the mass rally by anti-Chen protesters. It is closely watching how Mr Chen handles the situation.
Given his predicament, there is not much he can do. If he wants to play soft ball, the only way to immediately satisfy the protesters is to declare the election void and promise another one soon. But by doing so, he would not only alienate his supporters, but also arouse more suspicion about the shooting and alleged ballot rigging. On the other hand, he has an obvious conflict of interest if he takes tough measures to suppress the mass rallies. The only way he can handle the situation is to let the court take over, but this is both time-consuming and not very effective in allaying people's anxiety.
This being the case, the protest could drag on for days, getting increasingly radical. At the time of writing, the gathering is still basically peaceful, although the protesters are obviously very emotional. But if the crowd is not dispersed, at some time, things are bound to turn violent. Then, anything can happen.
This is the most worrying scenario for Beijing. Should Mr Chen be forced to suppress any rioting, he would probably emerge more powerful, having subdued all opposition. In that case, internally, there would not be much between him and Taiwan independence.
The situation in Taiwan is potentially explosive, and could have serious ramifications in the region. In the worst case, war could break out across the Taiwan Strait.
Pundits predicted long ago that the central government would not reveal its hand about political reforms in Hong Kong until after the Taiwan presidential election, and that it would take a tougher stance if Mr Chen won. Now, with the situation more complicated than anyone could have expected, even many Hong Kong citizens are having second thoughts about political debates here.
Like Hong Kong, Taiwan has suffered economic problems since the Asian financial crisis. But unlike here, there is no end in sight in Taiwan. Compounded by political problems, the situation is likely to get worse. Many pragmatic Hongkongers would ask: what is it all for? Like many of our democrats, their Taiwan counterparts would cite democracy, dignity and the like. But this has nothing to do with democracy, as 92 per cent of those who participated in the referendum indicated that they wanted Taiwan to seek talks with the mainland on a 'peace and stability framework'. But it is definitely about dignity; the dignity of politicians like Mr Chen. The president of an independent island is far more 'dignified' than a chief executive under a central government. If what is now happening is the price to pay for the 'red carpet treatment' to satisfy politicians' vanity, people will begin to realise it is not worth it.
Here in Hong Kong, many democrats are really seeking full autonomy, rather than a 'high degree of autonomy' under the Basic Law; autonomy comparable to that of an independent political entity. Like Mr Chen, they wish to mobilise the masses to show the central government that there is a consensus for universal suffrage in the 2007 and 2008 elections. They want Beijing to endorse the change, because it is presented as the will of the people. Rejecting it would be anti-democratic, leading to more protests.
As I have stated here many times, the central government will not countenance such nonsense. The ball is now back in the democrats' court. What price do they want us to pay? Many Hong Kong citizens are now pondering this question as they anxiously watch the developments in Taiwan. My bet is that they do not want to foot the bill.
Do not count on them marching for 'democracy now' on July 1. For one thing, contrary to what the democrats want us to believe, most people who joined last year's protest did not march for democracy.
Lau Nai-keung is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate