Taiwan's first democrats feel co-opted They dream of winning island's independence in Nixon-like comeback

March 21, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Exiled in distant lands, wasting their lives in prison, talking in code over tapped phone lines, even dying for the cause this was the way Taiwan's dissidents spent their lives just a decade ago.

Their successful defiance of the Nationalist Party's dictatorship has been one of the great democratic success stories of recent times, but also a poignant, even melancholic one.

For now that the exercise in democracy they had always demanded is about to happen here Saturday, Taiwan's veteran dissidents are in some ways further from their goal than ever before.

That goal was two-fold: democracy and formal independence from mainland China.

The first part they won with spectacular success. Martial law was lifted in 1988, the constitution was reformed to reduce the power of unelected officials and the long-awaited presidential election is set for Saturday.

But the other part of the goal the establishment of some sort of a Republic of Taiwan remains unfulfilled and in some ways is more remote than ever.

As events over the past two weeks have made clear, China is absolutely committed to stopping Taiwan from becoming an independent country, even willing to risk war with the United States over the issue.

Taiwan, many observers believe, will have to bargain hard to keep its own political, economic and military system.

Very probably, China will demand that Taiwan's new president agree to some sort of long-term framework for reunification.

For the veteran dissidents who fought the Nationalist Party's dictatorship for decades, this means that full independence is again a distant goal.

"Events are moving too slowly," said Yao Chia-wen, a former political prisoner who in December lost election to parliament as a representative of the Democratic Progressive Party, the political party made up of many former dissidents and pro-independence agitators. "It's disappointing and surprising that China has this attitude."

Even without China's strong opposition, full independence does not find wide support in Taiwan. In the four democratic elections Taiwan has held in the past five years two for parliament, one for county leaders and one for governor and mayor of the two biggest cities the DPP candidates attracted about a third of the popular vote.

And not all of those voters support independence. Many cast their vote for the DPP because they still dislike the Nationalists, who under incumbent President Lee Teng-hui have introduced democracy but still carry the baggage of decades of brutal dictatorship from previous years.

Despite the weak showings, the DPP has maintained its plank for independence, rejecting a move a year ago to drop it.

"Calling for independence shows the party is out of touch with reality," said Antonio Chiang, publisher of the Journalist magazine and a veteran dissident. "Young people don't have a memory of martial law and the suffering of that time."

Sitting in his office overlooking one of Taipei's neon-lighted downtown streets, Mr. Yao muses over the election he lost in December. Active in the independence movement for 30 years, the 58-year-old U.S.-trained lawyer served seven years in prison for helping to organize speeches and rallies in the 1970s. He won election to parliament in 1992, then lost to a Nationalist Party candidate.

"The people don't always understand the need for independence," Mr. Yao said. "We haven't been able to increase the number of seats [in parliament] or explain to people why independence is necessary."

Like many of the DPP's current leaders, he was active in publishing Formosa magazine, a legendary underground publication that called for political reforms and independence from the mainland.

The Nationalists opposed independence because they still planned to invade mainland China to capture the control they had over China before losing the civil war in 1949 to the Communists.

When the Nationalists began their reforms in the late 1980s and the DPP was granted legal status, many predicted it would quickly supplant the Nationalists' moribund and corrupt political machine.

The DPP also had an ethnic advantage. It represented the majority of Taiwan's ethnic Chinese population born on Taiwan or with long roots on the island the "Taiwanese." The Nationalists, by contrast, had been dominated by people born on mainland China who fled to Taiwan when they lost the civil war.

Yet over the past half-dozen years, the Nationalists have co-opted many of the DPP's positions on political reform and national identity, pushing, for example, for a seat for Taiwan in the United Nations. And, of course, with Mr. Lee at the helm, the Nationalists now have a native-born Taiwanese leading the party.

"The DPP is in a mid-life crisis. In the past, they struggled to be the voice of the Taiwanese, but Lee Teng-hui took this away," Mr. Chiang said.

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