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China's Actions Against Tibet Overshadow Taiwan Elections

By Stephanie Ho
20 March 2008

Taiwan's 17 million voters are expected go to the polls Saturday to elect a new president. The issue of a Chinese crackdown on rioters in Tibet may alter the outcome of an increasingly close election. Stephanie Ho reports from Beijing.

The people of Taiwan go to the polls Saturday for the fourth presidential election in its short democratic history.

The front runner is 57-year-old Ma Ying-jeou, a Harvard-trained lawyer who recently served as mayor of Taipei. Ma heads the Nationalist Party, which ruled Taiwan for five decades after it lost a civil war to Chinese communists in 1949 and fled to the island.

The Nationalists won Taiwan's first-ever presidential election in 1996, but have lost the last two.

His challenger is 61-year-old Frank Hsieh, a former human rights lawyer who hopes to consolidate his Democratic Progressive Party's hold on power, following its first president, incumbent Chen Shui-bian.

The main issue is Taiwan's relationship with Beijing, which regards the island as an inseparable part of the Chinese nation.

Both candidates say they favor closer and more stable relations with China. But Nationalist candidate Ma has offered a policy with more specifics and scope. The DPP's Hsieh also has to deal with Beijing's dislike of President Chen, who has been widely seen as pushing for Taiwan independence.

Polls had initially given Ma a comfortable lead over Hsieh, but that gap is shrinking.

Chong-Pin Lin, president of the Taipei-based Foundation on International and Cross-Straits Studies, says the main thing narrowing the gap is Taiwanese voters reaction to China's recent crackdown in Tibet.

"Both contending parties are trying to make the most of this, to their own benefit," Lin said. "However, in my observation, the DPP seems to be ahead. They reacted very fast."

China claims both Tibet and Taiwan and accuses opposition forces of having separatist intentions.

However, Lin says Beijing's approaches to Taiwan and Tibet have been different. He says he believes the Chinese government is trying to take what he describes as a "soft approach" toward the island, to try to woo it into accepting reunification.

"Beijing plans to let Taiwan fall into Beijing's hand, as a ripened fruit, by other than military instruments -- economic, social, cultural, you name it," Lin said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently told reporters Beijing has a more conciliatory attitude toward Taiwan. He began his comments by reciting lines from a 700-year-old poem.

"We remain brothers, after all the vicissitudes," Mr. Wen said. "Let us forgo our old grudges. When smiling, we meet again. We are willing to expand the range and scope of our business ties and trade with Taiwan, including in the fields of investment, trade, tourism, banking sector."

Taiwanese investment in China is estimated at $100 billion.

Despite seeking closer economic ties, China militarily underscores its warning against Taiwan independence by pointing hundreds of missiles at the island.

In talks with foreign leaders, the Chinese government has consistently raised the issue of Taiwan as its most-important priority.

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