China watches Taiwan vote

President: Beijing likes no candidate, fears independence-leaning Chen most.

March 16, 2000

WHOEVER wins Taiwan's second free presidential election on Saturday, tensions will rise in the Taiwan Strait. Cool heads are needed on both sides.

Communist China's biggest fear is that Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party will win. Beijing's crude gesture to prevent that only makes it more likely. Polls showed a three-way race too close to call when they ceased ten days before the vote.

Mr. Chen's party's charter calls for Taiwan independence, which Beijing says would provoke invasion. Mr. Chen has wisely backed off that call in favor of traditional Taiwanese subtleties.

China's intervention consisted of a remark by Premier Zhu Rongji to a press conference in Beijing: "Let me advise all these people in Taiwan. Do not just act on impulse at this juncture, which will decide the future course that China and Taiwan will follow. Otherwise, I'm afraid you won't get another opportunity to regret."

That's all. No names. But political Taiwan took it as specific intimidation and told the People's Republic to butt out.

The biggest rumor in Taipei is that the retiring president, Lee Teng-hui, secretly favors Mr. Chen, not his own Nationalist Party's nominee, Vice President Lien Chan. Mr. Lee denies this.

There is no doubting his opposition to his former protg, James Soong, running as an independent. Beijing would feel less uncomfortable dealing with Mr. Lien or Mr. Soong than with Mr. Chen.

Communist China learned about capitalism from watching Taiwan in envy. So it must with democracy. The wrong person can win. You put up with it.

China is capable of wrecking Taiwan, not occupying it. The cost to both would be horrendous. The two Chinas are already interdependent. If Mr. Chen can win, he will have made his point. Coexisting and cooperating for a future one-China would be Beijing's responsibility, and his.

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