Freedom bring Taiwan identity crisis


April 25, 1993|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Staff Writer

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Three years ago, Hsu Hsin-liang was in jail on sedition charges. Now he leads an opposition party controlling almost a third of this island's legislature. In three years, he could become Taiwan's first directly elected president.

The change in Mr. Hsu's fortunes reflects an extraordinary political transformation here.

Taiwan's economic miracle is well known. Less recognized is its political miracle. After decades of often brutal rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party that fled here from China's mainland in the 1940s, Taiwan has become the first democracy in 4,000 years of Chinese history.

These days, Taiwan is a vibrant society searching for a new definition of itself and for a more independent niche in the world. But resolving this identity crisis may require a third miracle.

Taiwan's self-proclaimed Republic of China remains largely defined by the People's Republic of China, the Communist regime that prevailed in China's civil war in 1949 and was finally recognized by the United States as the real government after a 30-year Cold War charade.

This week in Singapore, the two bitter enemies will hold an historic meeting, their highest level contact ever. But that meeting will not resolve the Taiwan regime's central problem.

Beijing still views Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province, a claim backed by the United States and most nations since the 1970s. China blocks recognition of Taiwan by other countries and threatens military attack if the island declares independence.

"We are the only country in the world afraid to say it's a country," says Antonio Chiang, a publisher in Taipei, the capital. "We are free of repression now, but for what are we free?"

Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang, has responded pragmatically to this question. The party still agrees that China should be reunited, but it has given up its counter-claim as the nation's sole ruler.

The Kuomintang now says China is divided into two areas controlled by two equal political entities, much as Germany was until 1991. It has launched a renewed drive for recognition by the rest of the world, including a recently announced desire for a role in the United Nations.

"We have accepted reality," Foreign Minister Fredrick Chien says. "We are what we are. We do not pretend to be what we wish we could be."

Mr. Chien stresses that Taiwan still wants China reunified -- if the mainland becomes a democracy. But until then, he says, Taiwan "must be able to enjoy its rightful place in the world arena. . . . To deny us access or participation in U.N. activities is a direct violation of the fundamental human rights of the people living here."


This drive for de facto independence takes place as Taipei and Beijing engage in a delicate rapprochement that will reach its highest level at this week's meeting in Singapore.

Since 1987, when the Taipei government first allowed travel to the mainland, Taiwanese have made almost 5 million trips there. Trade,funneled through Hong Kong, may reach $10 billion this year, 10 times the level of six years ago. The island now is China's second-largest investor.

Many labor-intensive, export industries have left Taiwan for the PRC, drawn by wages a tenth of the island's.

"The government there acts like the Kuomintang used to act here," says Chen Yu-hsin of President Enterprises, a Taiwanese food company with six plants on the mainland. "We solve problems there under the table the same way we used to here."

The exodus of companies has raised fears the island could lose its industrial base to China, enabling Beijing to hold hostage these investments.

Already caught in the continuing civil war is the marriage of Chen Feng Seng, one of 12,000 Taiwanese men who claim to have married mainlanders since relations warmed.

The couple wed in 1990 on the mainland. He can visit her, but she is number 999 on a Taiwan immigration waiting list; it will be late 1995 before she can move here. "It's not good for our marriage," he sighs.

This week's Singapore meeting, planned as the first of a series between the leaders of quasi-official agencies on both sides, was prompted by such problems. Political issues are not on the agenda, but they will sign pacts on registered mail and verifying documents, such as marriage licenses.

For Beijing, the meeting is a step in luring Taiwan into reunification under a "one country, two systems" formula similar to that promised Hong Kong in 1997.

Beijing is pressing hard for closer ties, such as direct trade and transportation, but Taiwan won't allow that until China forgoes its military threat.

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