Tug of war and peace

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 December, 2004, 12:00am

Saturday's legislative election in Taiwan could have a significant bearing on cross-strait relations. Of paramount concern to both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Kuomintang alike is the possibility of Lee Teng-hui's anti-Beijing Taiwan Solidarity Union winning a substantial minority. This could hype public sentiment, countering attempts by President Chen Shui-bian, or even the opposition, to push to reactivate cross-strait dialogue.

Taiwanese politics is complicated by extremes which pull in opposing directions. Mr Lee has promoted his qu hua, or 'eliminate the Chinese', agenda by parading in a Japanese samurai costume during election campaigning. This has stirred up feelings among radical elements in the south of the island, who associate themselves with the Japanese (Japan colonised Taiwan from 1894-1945). Mr Lee's movement is dangerous. Countering it should be of paramount concern to Beijing.

It is being opposed through a pro-Chinese revivalism movement, led by Hsu Hsin-liang, a political legend in Taiwan. Mr Hsu was once the radical leader of the DPP during the party's early years when it challenged the KMT's authority. Mr Hsu was later marginalised and then ousted by Mr Chen, who fuelled his own rise by advocating a more radical independence agenda.

During protests over Mr Chen's controversial re-election this year, Mr Hsu re-emerged from the political wilderness to lead a massive hunger strike outside the presidential palace. Now, he is running for a seat in the legislature. Can he make a political comeback? And if he succeeds, what would be the consequences?

If a picture is worth 1,000 words, Mr Hsu's campaign poster speaks 10,000. It depicts Mr Hsu, wearing a traditional jacket made famous by Sun Yat-sen , facing Deng Xiaoping . Does this mean that he is pro-unification? Certainly, he is for dialogue. 'The situation is out of control and at any time could become volatile,' Mr Hsu said recently on the subject of cross-strait relations. 'My reason to seek re-entry into the Legislative Yuan is to put forward a solution. It is time to negotiate. Economic dependency on China is so great. How can you argue with this?'

Could a single opposition seat greatly affect Taiwan's legislature, given the existing political clout of the established parties and forces? Mr Hsu's charisma is a factor. So is his network, which extends both within the DPP and the KMT. They 'could be my potential supporters', he believes. 'They agree with my position but have no clear agenda.' Someone like Mr Hsu could give them such an agenda.

Opposing forces such as Mr Hsu and Mr Lee could pull Mr Chen in different directions, and Beijing must pay attention to this. Mr Chen's power depends on finding the middle ground and consolidating the political mainstream before either opposition force tilts the balance. Mr Hsu points to an 'undecided majority' which could do this.

Many within the KMT seek closer cross-strait dialogue, but the party carries political baggage, and splintered interests lack a clear focus.

The composition of Taiwan's post-election legislature could greatly affect Mr Chen's position regarding dialogue with Beijing. If Mr Lee's faction gains seats, it will complicate matters, while Mr Hsu's re-entry may drive the president towards clearer dialogue with the mainland government.

Mr Hsu's rational stance could counter Mr Lee's dangerous independence initiatives and his voice could lead Mr Chen into a more clear position regarding 'one China'.

Mr Hsu advocates strengthening Taiwan's economy by integrating with the mainland's. He calls for using the money which at present goes on American arms to upgrade the social welfare system. 'It is intellectual stupidity to advocate any war in the 21st century,' he says. He may only represent a minority, but most people would agree with that.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing