Chen Shui-bian After The Election: Lame Duck Or Phoenix?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Beijing’s unusually cautious response to Taiwan’s disputed presidential polls shows that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has yet to come to a consensus on how to deal with four more years of administration under ‘splittis’ President Chen Shui-bian. This, despite the fact that with the country’s fast-growing economic, military and diplomatic clout, Beijing would seem to enjoy unquestioned superiority over the increasingly divided island of Taiwan.

It was not until March 26, six days after the hotly contested elections, that the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) came out with a tough statement warning that Beijing “will not stand idly by” should chaos engulf the island. The cabinet-level TAO also lambasted President Chen for refusing to adequately deal with accusations by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP) that the election was “unfair and rigged.” However, there are no signs that in the near term Beijing is prepared to do anything drastic, apart from firing rhetorical volleys against Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) colleagues.

For the moment, the CCP’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs (LGTA) is giving top priority to using the ‘American card’ to blunt the pro-independence offensives that Chen is expected to launch during his second term. It is noteworthy that the first post-election reaction made by a ministerial-level cadre came in the form of Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing calling up U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Li, deemed close to President Hu Jintao, asked Washington to unswervingly observe a “one China” policy. He also called upon the U.S. “to do more [things] that will be beneficial to stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

How to effectively deal with ‘troublemaker’ Chen’s machinations will dominate talks that Vice-President Dick Cheney will hold with President Hu and his colleagues during the U.S. leader’s visit to Beijing in April. Senior CCP cadres will likely press Washington to make another clear-cut commitment to rein in the DPP’s separatist campaign. Specifically, the Hu leadership is concerned about Chen’s avowed goal of revising the island’s Constitution so that the charter would “fully reflect Taiwan’s statehood.” For example, Taiwan’s official name might be changed from the Republic of China to just Taiwan, and relations with China may be classified as that with a ‘foreign country’. The CCP leadership has reiterated that should the constitutional revision result in a change in Taiwan’s sovereignty, Beijing will use whatever means necessary-including military measures-to safeguard China’s territorial integrity.

“Beijing wants Cheney and other senior U.S. officials to express disapproval of Taipei making a radical revision of the Taiwan Constitution,” said a source close to Beijing’s foreign policy apparatus. The source added the Hu leadership might acquiesce in a minor amendment of the charter, that is, one that has no bearing on sovereignty matters.

The magnitude of American influence in Taiwan politics was evidenced by the unexpectedly low proportion of voters (45%) who chose to take part in the two referendums also held on March 20. According to Taiwan political science professor Hsu Yung-ming, Taiwanese enthusiasm for referendums had declined after Secretary of State Powell and other U.S. officials had declared Washington’s ‘non-support’ for the electoral mechanism. This was despite the fact that, again due to U.S. pressure, Chen had toned down the substance and language of the two plebiscites a month before the presidential polls.

On the cross-Straits front, all interaction between Beijing and Taipei will likely be put on hold until the members and advisers of the LGTA, headed by President Hu, have completed their assessment of the aftermath of the disputed polls. Beijing is of course disappointed that the joint ticket of KMT Chairman Lien Chan and PFP Chairman James Soong failed to triumph over Chen, despite their sizable lead in the pre-election opinion polls. However, even if, as is likely, a recount of the ballots confirms the incumbent president’s victory, the CCP leadership has reasons to be reassured.

First of all, Chen’s may become a lame-duck administration given that his 50.1% share of the votes was a mere 0.23% more than that of his opponents. This means the 49.9% of voters who favored the Lien-Soong ticket may remain convinced that, as Lien put it, “Chen has stolen the country” through allegedly rigging the electoral process. As such, the DPP chief may lack the authority to push through pro-independence measures such as rewriting the Constitution.

And it is certain that Beijing’s powerful propaganda machinery will work overtime to further undermine Chen’s legitimacy by characterizing the former human rights lawyer as an unprincipled, Machiavellian manipulator. For example, Beijing’s leading expert on Taiwan, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Li Jiaquan, has called Chen “a most blatant violator of the law.” Such rhetoric will likely continue through this year.

On a deeper level, however, Beijing has not lost sight of the fact that despite economic woes such as a 5% unemployment rate-which is high for the erstwhile Asian Tiger and IT-stronghold-the DPP has made sizeable gains during this election. In polls of all levels since the mid-1980s, the DPP had only managed to win the support of about 40% of the electorate. This time around, the pro-independence party has made impressive inroads particularly among residents in central and northern Taiwan, as well as among ethnic Hakka constituents who traditionally favor the KMT or PFP.

It is true that the two referendums sponsored by the DPP, which among other things asked voters whether Taipei should boost defense spending, were invalidated because less than 50% of voters who cast their ballots for the presidential contest bothered to take part in the plebiscites. However, there is no question that the proportion of Taiwanese who are opposed to reunification, even a kind of theoretical, eventual reunion with the mainland has increased. It is likely that the KMT and PFP will merge in the coming months and that this new ‘Pan Blue’ party will stress its ethnic-Taiwanese identity rather than its mainlander, pro-unification credentials. The Chairman of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, or Parliament, Wang Jin-pyng, who is the KMT’s most prominent native-Taiwanese politician, is tipped to be a possible chairman of the merged party.

Apart from rising native-Taiwanese sentiments on the island, the CCP leadership is constrained by the fact that the much-ballyhooed military option is much less potent than it is often made out to be. A source close to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said the generals had, since mid-2003, been putting pressure on the leadership of President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao to rattle the saber, and in general to speed up preparation for “liberation warfare against the renegade province.”

However, the Hu-Wen team remains highly reluctant about even relatively mild tactics such as missile drills along in the Taiwan Strait area. The PLA source said while the generals were satisfied with getting an 11.6% boost in the military budget at the just-ended National People’s Congress, they were unhappy with the fact that Wen had put the utmost emphasis during the parliamentary session on securing at least “twenty more years of peace for [China’s] economic development.”

That the 17-month-old Hu-Wen administration has serious reservations about flexing military muscles is also evidenced by the steps taken to prevent college students throughout China from staging anti-Chen Shui-bian demonstrations. Political sources in Beijing said almost immediately after election results had become known, party and government authorities gave instructions to universities in major cities to do whatever they could to stop students from holding anti-DPP protests and calling for military means to ‘liberate’ Taiwan. Moreover, it was not until five days after the presidential polls that CCTV, Xinhua News Agency and other major official media in China provided detailed coverage about the ‘rigged polls’, as well as Lien and Soong’s efforts to overturn Chen’s electoral victory.

Apart from playing the U.S. card, Beijing will redouble its united front tactics by projecting the image of a benevolent big brother eager to help Taiwanese weather the turmoil engendered by the polls. It is expected that Beijing will soon announce more sweetheart deals for Taiwan’s powerful business community. For example, the CCP leadership may unveil a trade package akin to the closer economic partnership arrangement between the mainland and Hong Kong. And Beijing will try to convince Taiwan businessmen and opposition party leaders that only through embracing the motherland can the island remain prosperous-and immune to ‘splittist’ Chen’s dangerous game plans.

In spite of Beijing’s strenuous efforts, however, a re-elected Chen may not heed the CCP leadership’s warnings about pressing ahead with separatism. A legislator close to the ruling party said that, having survived the apparent assassination attempt and clinched a razor-thin electoral victory, the 53-year-old leader felt that the heavens were on the side of the Taiwanese cause. “The President repeatedly said ‘God bless Taiwan’ after emerging from the hospital the day before the polls,” the legislator said. “It is evident that like his predecessor Lee Teng-hui, Chen is convinced that his pro-independence crusade enjoys divine backing.”