Two tigers -- one friendly to press

SUN JOURNAL

Media: The Communist mainland keeps journalists on a tight leash. Taiwan courts publicity to protect its democratic and economic accomplishments.

March 25, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan -- In the days leading up to this month's annual meeting of the National People's Congress, China's largely toothless parliament, the state security bureau began tailing a number of foreign journalists. Using motorcycles, cars and walkie-talkies, they followed the reporters everywhere: to lunch, to dinner, even on weekend outings with their children.

During the congress meeting, the banned spiritual meditation group Falun Gong staged quiet, peaceful demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. As in the past, police pulled them off the square, sometimes dragging them by the hair and beating them. Police confiscated the film of people caught photographing the scenes. Embarrassed and worried about social instability, the government didn't want reporters talking to the group or documenting its activities.

As the meeting wound down, many in the foreign news corps prepared to fly to Taiwan to cover the presidential election. We were glad to go. First: It promised and proved to be a terrific story. Pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian toppled one of the world's longest-ruling parties, the Nationalists, despite threats from Beijing that his victory could lead to war.

Second: We could do our jobs without interference.

A study in contrasts

After working in the repressive atmosphere of mainland China, reporting in Taiwan is a delight. In China, the government taps our phones and offices and routinely refuses the most innocuous interview requests. In Taiwan, the government encourages us to talk to everyone, even its critics.

Whereas Chinese often shy away from discussing political matters and frequently refuse to give their full names for fear of government retribution, many Taiwanese gladly dispense opinions with little prompting.

A week before the election, I attended a rally for Chen in the southern port city of Kaohsiung. His opposition Democratic Progressive Party organized the event, which drew more than 100,000 people. It was everything politics in China is not: boisterous, free, enthusiastic and entertaining.

A man in shorts and a T-shirt stood on the roof of a watermelon truck waving giant green and white DPP flags. Local candidates marched across the stage like contestants in a beauty pageant.

Amid the blare of air horns and flash of klieg lights, DPP leaders savaged the ruling Nationalists, or Kuomintang, for failing to control corruption and told supporters to defy China and work hard for Chen's election.

"Everyone is watching us," said Shi Ming-teh, a DPP legislator who is known as Taiwan's Nelson Mandela and spent nearly three decades in jail fighting for democracy.

When I tried to interview a man in the crowd, several dozen people quickly gathered around. Many wanted to be heard. What did they think of China's threats to wage war if Chen won and Taiwan continued to move toward independence? I asked.

"We're not afraid," said a 56- year-old man named Zhuang, who runs a grocery store. "Even the women aren't afraid."

Democratic transition

Until 11 years ago, opposition political parties were banned in Taiwan. The island's transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one has been one of the more remarkable success stories in Asia during the past two decades.

The Nationalist regime of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek ruled the island for nearly four decades under martial law, until Chiang's son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo, lifted the decree in 1987. In the past decade, a vibrant political life has followed.

One of Asia's Tiger economies, Taiwan has enjoyed success on many fronts. Mainland relations are the most worrisome exception. China has viewed the island as a wayward province since Chiang Kai-shek arrived in defeat at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Although Taiwan is a de facto independent country, Beijing has threatened to attack the island of 22 million people if its leaders ever formally declare independence.

Proud of their accomplishments, worried about survival and looking for sympathetic friends, Taiwanese people and officials embrace foreign reporters -- especially American ones.

Whereas the Chinese government tends to be obstructive, Taiwanese press officials exhausted themselves last week, arranging interviews, putting together panel discussions and squiring journalists from campaign headquarters to late-night election rallies. The Government Information Office in Taipei is so zealous that it sometimes sets up interviews with people reporters haven't asked to see.

Most in the United States know little about Taiwan, which lies 100 miles off the South China coast. They might even have trouble finding it on a map. The Taiwanese news office seeks as much publicity as possible to maintain support on Capitol Hill. Perhaps as a reminder, the office hangs enlarged, framed copies of U.S. newspaper editorials in the stairway leading to its second-floor office.

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