Peaceful revolution on Taiwan

Election: Chen won mandate to clean out corruption, not declare independence.

March 21, 2000

CHEN Shui-bian overthrew not the Communist Party of China in Taiwan's presidential election Saturday but the Nationalist Party on Taiwan.

The ghost he vanquished was not that of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who died in 1976, but of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who died a year earlier. The voting turned not on relations with the mainland but on throwing Taiwan's own rascals out of power.

If President Jiang Zemin of China has good intelligence -- and there is no reason to suppose otherwise -- he knows as well as Mr. Chen that this was no referendum on sovereignty. Mr. Chen squeaked in first in a three-way race on a crusade to root out corruption.

And that forms the basis on which China can defuse the crisis it proclaimed over Mr. Chen's victory.

The Kuomintang, KMT or Nationalist Party has ruled some part of China, claiming all, since it was founded in 1916 by China's great revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen. Since 1949, when Sun's successor Chiang Kai-shek was driven from the mainland by the Communists, the Nationalists have ruled Taiwan.

Mr. Chen was a lifelong dissident in the name of Taiwanese people restive under mainland exiles. The issue on which he triumphed was the excesses of a party in power too long.

Even so, he won only after the KMT split. Retiring President Lee Teng picked a feud with his natural successor, James Soong, and threw the party behind Vice President Lien Chan. The popular Mr. Soong ran as an independent and nearly won. Mr. Lien came in a poor third. Mr. Chen, with a 39 percent plurality, has a mandate only to root out corruption. Even that is limited by the Nationalist majority in the legislature.

Instead of fighting him, mainland Communists would be wiser to say his election confirms what they always said about the Nationalists. He and they should continue toning down their rhetoric.

The two Chinas are economically interdependent. Neither could escape any hurt it inflicted on the other. They need only build on cooperation, without absolutist statements they would regret.

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