Taiwan shooting charges election

Possible assassination try fuels partisan accusations

Relations with China at issue

President, vice president are wounded in incident

March 20, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI - A day after an apparent assassination attempt against their president, Taiwan's voters go to the polls today in what may be the most important election in their history, as President Chen Shui-bian competes against a challenger offering a more conciliatory policy toward Taiwan's powerful neighbor, China.

China claims Taiwan as its territory and is clearly, if unofficially, rooting for a defeat for Chen, who Chinese authorities fear is more likely to push for formal independence than is his challenger, Lien Chan.

Chen was released from the hospital yesterday, hours after being grazed in the abdomen by a bullet fired by an unknown assailant. A bullet also grazed the right knee of Vice President Annette Lu. Chen had been campaigning in the city of Tainan, in southern Taiwan, the wellspring of Taiwanese nationalism and antipathy toward China's Communist rulers.

In a televised speech, the president told the nation not to be concerned about his well-being. But given the charged political environment, some Taiwanese moved beyond worrying to believing in shadowy conspiracies behind the shooting.

Some supporters of Chen's opponent seemed to view the fact that Chen escaped virtually unharmed, and that no one was arrested, as evidence his own backers, known as "greens," were somehow behind the incident or had fabricated it entirely.

"The greens were worried about losing, so they arranged this shooting to win people's sympathy," said Hung Yie, 66, a Lien supporter.

Some of Chen's supporters saw the shooting as an assault on their fledgling democracy, which today is staging its third direct vote for president.

"I feel this is a terrible blow to Taiwanese democracy," said Chen Teh-lung, 28. "We shouldn't allow our president to be treated like this."

"If you have to guess who did it, the other side did it, the radical kind of people, the Communists," said Chang Ming-yue, 50.

Such theories gain followings here because the campaign has been so bitterly fought, and both sides deem the stakes to be high. A victory by Chen increases the prospect of an eventual confrontation with China over Taiwan's de facto independence, for China threatens war should Taiwan seek to formalize independence.

China's state-run media withheld news of the shooting for six hours until issuing a brief report last night. The delay may have been for fear of stirring up nationalist sentiment that could backfire against China in today's vote, and indeed conspiracy theories quickly found their way onto Chinese Internet sites.

"If you have clear eyes, you will know that the `shooting' is a political deception planned by Chen Shui-bian," wrote one anonymous poster on the Web site of the official New China News Agency.

"They are trying to win sympathy votes. Hope people won't be tricked," read another anonymous posting to the site.

Chen, 53, has riled mainland China with his ardent promotion of Taiwanese nationalism and identity, all of which Chinese authorities worry are precursors to a formal declaration of independence. Chen also has argued that Taiwan should adopt a new constitution by 2006, which China has warned could trigger the use of force.

Chinese officials have pinned their hopes on Chen's opponent, Lien, who has advocated closer ties with the mainland, including possible adoption of direct flights and other links that supporters believe will aid Taiwan's economy. Chen has said that he would only negotiate with China on a "state-to-state" basis, a position that China has deemed unacceptable.

Beijing argues that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, a renegade province that must one day be reunified with the mainland. Leaders in Taipei, too, long agreed that there was only China - which they suggested they should rule - but in the past decade they have acknowledged reality, that Taiwan is in all but the most formal way an independent state.

China and Taiwan have been adversaries across the Taiwan Strait since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Tse-Tung's Communists and fled to set up a government-in-exile on this island.

In the past eight years, since the first direct vote for president on Taiwan, China has consistently played an aggressive role in Taiwanese politics. Before the 1996 elections, China launched missiles in the waters off Taiwan, and before the 2000 election Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji warned the island from moving toward independence; both actions were seen here as having helped politicians with pro-independence leanings - most recently Chen in 2000 - win their elections.

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