Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 11

The results of the December 1 election for Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, undoubtedly shook Beijing almost as severely as it did that election’s major loser, the once proud Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Ever since Chen Shui-bian’s narrow victory in the March 2000 presidential election, the Chinese Communist leadership, in party as well as in government, have hoped that a presidency in the hands of the hated Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was a passing anomaly, that before long the KMT would regain control of the political situation in Taiwan and that the December 1 election would confirm that view.

Their hopes must have seemed quite justified. After all, the KMT held 123 of 225 seats in the outgoing legislature, and so blocked President Chen’s initiatives. Even if they lost a few seats, doubtless they would remain the strongest party and so keep Chen and the DPP in check.

But as we say in Chinese, “Chi shr, bu ran”–that’s not the way things worked out. The DPP together with the Taiwan Solidarity Union of former President Lee Teng-hui (the Taiwan politician the PRC hates more than any other) emerged from the election with 100 seats. The KMT contingent was just about halved. Together with its offshoot, the New Party, they will have just sixty-nine seats in the next parliament. The Peoples First Party increased its total from twenty-six to forty-six, mostly at the KMT’s expense. There are nine independents, several of whom probably will join the DPP-TSU coalition. Add a few KMT defectors, and Chen is likely to have a slim but workable majority.

Chen began his presidency in May 2000 by holding an olive branch out to Beijing. He pledged that he would not declare Taiwan formally independent, would not change its name from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan, would not even hold a plebiscite on the question of independence. He offered to meet Jiang Zemin anywhere, anytime, with any agenda–including the question of Taiwan’s relationship to China. At one point he even offered to discuss “political integration.”

Despite these gestures, the PRC refused to meet with Chen or any member of his government unless Taiwan is first prepared to state agreement with the proposition that “there is only one China in the world,” and that Taiwan forms a part of it. Beijing has even refused to allow Chen’s name to appear in the PRC press, apparently on the theory that if you limit references to such circumlocutions as “the Taiwan authorities” or “Taiwan Province leaders” (usually with “splittist” as a preceding adjective), Chen will more easily pass out of existence.

Official Chinese attitudes were based on their conviction that to deal with Chen, or his government, would give it prestige and add to its longevity. Refusing to do so, they believed, would convince the Taiwanese public that the DPP was incapable of dealing with the all-important Cross-Straits relationship. Hence the insistence on the “one China” kowtow, and the refusal, for example, to allow Taiwan to send anyone to the October APEC leaders meeting in Shanghai.

In the meantime, PRC leaders met ostentatiously with KMT politicians, suggested that they open an information office in China, and through the newspapers they control in Hong Kong hinted broadly that Taipei’s Mayor Ma Ying-jeou would be a worthy interlocutor–something Mao probably regarded as a direct blow to his local popularity. It would thus seem that, following the death of Zhou Enlai in the mid 1970s, subtlety passed out of fashion.

Given Chen’s victory, will the PRC rethink its policy? Undoubtedly some in those think tanks associated with leadership groups will propose doing so. But this is a tough time for those who make decisions in Beijing. The 16th Party Congress will be held next October and its preparations are already under way. The “third generation” of leaders–Jiang Zemin, Chu Rongji, Qian Qichen, who up to now have been responsible for Taiwan policy–are supposed to head off into retirement, to be replaced by a ‘fourth generation” centered on Hu Jintao as the new general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. But Hu, like so many previous leaders, will face the “successor’s dilemma.” He must build a power base of his own, but must do so in ways that do not upset his elders, and certainly must not brand their previous policies as mistaken. Probably it will be some while before Hu would be prepared to take any major initiative in any area of foreign or domestic policy.

So Beijing is unlikely to change its policies toward Taiwan, or toward Chen, in any dramatic way–though allowing his name to appear at last in the mainland press is certainly a possibility. And if this does happen, it will be portrayed as some incredible concession–the emperor deigning to take not of some obscure provincial official. But with Taiwanese entrepreneurs rushing to the mainland to set up factories that take advantage of China’s low wages and the absence of environmental or health regulations, the PRC leadership believe economics and trade will fix Taiwan firmly in its orbit without the need to do much else.

If Beijing can afford to be relaxed on Cross-Straits questions, so can the Chen government. With nothing dramatic likely to happen for some while, this should be the moment to concentrate on broader relationships. Chen should try to use this latest example of Taiwan’s emergence as a fully democratic state to build warmer relations with the Koizumi government in Japan, and with those states in Europe that just may value democracy more than trade statistics–the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Scandinavia and so on. Perhaps there may yet emerge in the United States a government that also does, one that understands that Washington’s version of the “one China policy” took shape when there were two military dictatorships each claiming to be the sole legitimate government of all of China. Now there is only one, and it is not headquartered in Taipei.


Harvey Feldman, former Alternate U.S. Representative to the United Nations, was a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asia Studies Center.