Wu Yen-huan is a politician in unusual circumstances. He has not seen the legislative district that he represents for more than 37 years. For that matter, he has not run for reelection in all that time, either.
In Taiwan's main lawmaking body, the Legislative Yuan, Wu, now 76, has persevered for decades as the delegate from a district on the Chinese mainland, in Hebei province just outside Peking. He was most recently elected to the seat in 1947.
Like other members of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, Wu fled to Taiwan in 1949, when Communist troops took control of the mainland.
Ever since then, he has opposed the idea of allowing an open, multi-party democracy on Taiwan. He explains that this would permit the 85% of the island's population which does not come from mainland China to form a party that would be what he calls "locally oriented."
"Imagine a situation in which the American Communists become so powerful that they take control of the continental United States and the legitimate American government moves to Hawaii," Wu said to an American reporter. "Suppose there are calls for an independent Hawaii. You Americans wouldn't support it, would you?"
Now, the political system on Taiwan, which has for four decades kept aging mainlanders like Wu in office, is in the midst of unexpected and dramatic change.
This fall, despite considerable resistance from conservatives within the ruling Nationalist Party, Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo has won the party's approval to lift soon the martial law that has been in effect on the island since 1949 and to permit the formation of new political parties on the island.
At the same time, opponents of the regime, most of them native Taiwanese who have long struggled against political domination by the emigres from the mainland, have seized the initiative. They have formed their own, technically still illegal party--one whose platform daringly suggests that the island of Taiwan should be considered as a political entity separate from China.
"The residents of Taiwan should decide the future of Taiwan," You Ching, a spokesman for the new Democratic Progressive Party, said in an interview. "We are against the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party violating the principle of self-determination of the people."
These far-reaching changes, which come on the eve of elections to be held here Saturday, have important implications not just for Taiwan itself but for China and for the United States as well.
Peking's ruling Communist Party, like the Nationalist regime in Taipei, considers Taiwan to be part of China. The new moves toward a multi-party democracy on Taiwan could complicate China's efforts to persuade the current generation of Nationalist Party leaders in Taipei to come home to the mainland once again.
Last month, as on many occasions in the past, China voiced strong public opposition to an independence movement on Taiwan, and once again urged Taiwan's Nationalist Party to meet with the Chinese Communist Party to discuss reunification.
For the United States, the developments in Taiwan have both economic and political significance. Taiwan is now the United States's sixth-largest trading partner, and any reforms that pave the way for a stable democracy in Taipei might help to safeguard these economic interests.
Effects on U.S.
Yet, the political changes on Taiwan could also affect U.S. relations with China itself. In the Shanghai Communique signed at the end of President Richard M. Nixon's trip to China in 1972, the United States agreed not to challenge the view that "Taiwan is a part of China."
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping has repeatedly listed U.S. support for Taiwan as one of the chief obstacles to improved relations between China and the United States.
President Chiang's move to lift martial law and permit new political parties has taken even experienced politicians by surprise and has produced an atmosphere of tense excitement here.
Among the Nationalists, the changes are being welcomed by younger officials who have been trying for some time to persuade the party's old guard of the need to reform the political system and to do something about the party's image of stubborn resistance to change.
'We Have Come of Age'
"We think we have come of age," said Ma Ying-jeou, 36, the deputy secretary general of the Nationalist Party. "People here are familiar with the democratic process."
Another of the Nationalist Party's younger generation of leaders, Yu-ming Shaw, head of the government-supported institute of international relations, said that there is "almost a new sense of euphoria here these days. . . . We hope we can provide a showcase for political democracy."
Among supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party, the mood is similarly upbeat.
"My spirits are much higher these days," said Daniel Huang, the editor of an opposition publication called Care magazine.
"During the past 30 years, we have paid a high price. Our cadres have been arrested and jailed. Now, we have achieved our goal, the new party has been formed. But this is only the first step. We must now become a competitor to the Nationalist Party."
Still, there are signs that the euphoria may not last. Martial law will not be lifted until early next year, after the elections are over and a new national security law being drafted by the Interior Ministry is enacted to replace it.
Opposition leaders say they fear that the new security provision may prove to be nearly as restrictive as martial law, and President Chiang himself has had to urge the ministry to speed up its work on the new law.
Caution Is Urged
"We must be cautious, in order to make the new law as perfect as possible," Wang Shanwong, the vice minister of interior, said in an interview.
Furthermore, by all accounts, Taiwan's military leaders and some elders within the Nationalist Party continue to oppose the new political reforms.
"The military here has for a long time been required to think in a certain way," said Yang Kuo-shu, chairman of the psychology department at National Taiwan University. "Only a few days before President Chiang's announcement, they were saying with confidence that nothing would be changed. So, they were shocked, just as everybody was shocked. They felt dislocated, puzzled. Some expressed their opposition at the highest levels."
One member of the Nationalist Party, who spoke on condition that his name would not be used, noted that even though martial law is being lifted, it might be reimposed.
"Image is important here, but not as important as internal stability," he said. Asked who would guarantee internal stability, he replied, "The military. They will not allow chaos and disorder."
Until President Chiang's recent initiatives, there had been some academic discussion but little practical change in Taiwan's authoritarian political system. The Nationalist Party has for nearly four decades held the dominant and favored position over all aspects of political life here.
Only 3 Legal Parties
Under martial law, civilians can be tried in military courts. The only political parties allowed on Taiwan are the Nationalists and two insignificant fringe parties, the Young China Party and the China Democratic Socialist Party, which came over with Chiang Kai-shek's forces to Taiwan from the mainland.
Publications by forces opposed to the regime are still often seized or banned. Newspapers and magazines from outside Taiwan are held at the airport while they are screened and censored.
Over the last few years, the Nationalist regime has gradually loosened its grip on political dissent. Opposition publications have occasionally been allowed to air criticisms of the regime, or even of President Chiang, which would have landed them in jail a decade ago.
The censorship of outside publications is less strict. This year, on the anniversary of Chiang Kai-shek's birthday, for example, Taiwan's censors allowed into the island a Hong Kong newspaper with a wire-service report from Peking headlined, "Mainland Memories of the Generalissimo Fade."
Most importantly, the regime's political opponents have been allowed a bit more latitude in elections. Until now, the opposition candidates have been referred to as the tangwai, the Chinese word for "outside the party." In recent years, tangwai candidates have been receiving about 30% of the popular vote.
Nevertheless, the continuing restrictions of martial law have prevented the tangwai from organizing themselves into a party or from operating on the same legal footing as the Nationalists.
The Nationalists' move to lift martial law dates to last March, when the party, at its most recent congress, set up a 12-member committee to study political changes. Lifting martial law and recognizing political parties were two of the issues that the group was assigned to study.
In early September, opposition groups staged a series of street demonstrations in Taipei. Thousands of people--in one instance, an estimated 12,000 demonstrators--protested the jailing of Lin Cheng-chieh, a tangwai leader and member of the Taipei City Council who had been convicted of defamation of a government-supported politician.
When Lin began serving his jail sentence, opposition leaders on Sept. 28 defied martial law by suddenly announcing the formation of their new party, the Democratic Progressive Party. Shortly afterwards, President Chiang countered by announcing plans to end martial law and to allow new political parties.
Chiang said new parties would be allowed to operate so long as they abided by three restrictions: to remain anti-Communist, obey the constitution and stay clear of the movement for an independent Taiwan. His proposals were approved by the party's central committee in mid-October.
Nevertheless, liberalization of attitudes toward the tangwai is far from comlete, as shown by the government's mobilization of security forces this week to prevent the return of Hsu Hsin-liang, who founded an overseas branch of the Democratic Progressive Party. Police have clashed twice with his supporters at the Taipei airport.
What prompted the Nationalist regime to move towards a degree of liberalization now, after nearly four decades of resistance?
Some, particularly members of the political opposition, believe that the timing was dictated by the December elections.
"After this election, there will be no other elections for three years," Huang, the opposition editor, said. "The Nationalists know the people are losing their patience, and they did not want martial law to be an issue in this campaign."
Within the Nationalist Party, those who support the changes say Taiwan's population of more than 19 million has become so much more prosperous and better-educated that it is ready for democracy.
"When we first got here in 1949, we had a poor, backwards society, susceptible to Communist propaganda," said Ma Soo-lay, 77, secretary general of the Nationalist Party. "As people progress, they become less vulnerable to Communist propaganda. That's why we gradually open up the political process."
Ma said that Japan's Liberal Democratic Party, which has long dominated Japanese politics within a democratic system, provides "some reference for us" as a model in the moves towards democracy.
Another important factor has been President Chiang himself, who has dominated political life on Taiwan since his father, Chiang Kai-shek, died in 1975. Now 76 and in frail health, Chiang Ching-kuo is widely thought to be considering how he will be remembered by historians.
Even Chiang's political opponents give him high marks for giving a greater political role to the Taiwanese, who now make up at least 70% of the Nationalist party's 2.3 million members.
"Chiang Ching-kuo is the only mainlander respected by the Taiwanese," said Antonio Chiang, an opposition magazine editor who is no relation to the President. "He actually makes efforts to go out and talk to the Taiwanese."
Finally, some analysts offer another explanation for the Nationalists' sudden liberalization: the February revolution overthrowing President Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Philippines and the fear that Taiwan's Nationalist regime might run up against waning support from the United States if it does not open up the political system.
"The Nationalists are becoming less and less willing to have a violent conflict with the tangwai," said Prof. Yang. "The tangwai know the Nationalists want to have a peaceful situation, both for their domestic and international image--especially after events in the Philippines and South Korea and because of pressure from the U.S."
Taking Tougher Line
Opposition leaders here believe the United States has taken a tougher line with the Nationalist Party ever since the 1984 murder in the San Francisco area of Henry Liu, an author whose writings were critical of the Chiang family. That murder was carried out by Taiwanese gangsters who had been hired by Taiwan's chief of military intelligence.
No one is sure yet whether the Democratic Progressive Party, which includes a number of individuals and groups who have been at odds in the past, will remain united.
Opposition members acknowledge that there are disagreements within their ranks over tactics, over economic issues and over how to handle the overriding issue of Taiwan's relations with China. For now, however, the groups have agreed to put aside their differences and jointly challenge the Nationalist regime.
"For us, what matters is not reunification or independence, but democracy. People here don't want to hear about reunification because the Nationalists use it to stop democratization," said Chiang, the opposition editor and Democratic Progressive Party supporter. "Independence is not important because we are living separately already.
"The majority of people here don't know about China and haven't been there. We want to trade and communicate (with China), as long as this doesn't touch politics."
Mail to Mainland Banned
Officially, the Nationalist regime prohibits any mail, phone contacts or direct trade with the mainland.
The Taiwanese who support the Democratic Progressive Party particularly mistrust the now-elderly Nationalist leaders who spent much of their adult lives on the Chinese mainland. The fear is that this older generation might want to strike a bad deal with China.
"We have a saying that their bodies are in Taiwan, their minds are in China and their sons are in the United States," editor Huang said.
In Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, the main lawmaking body, 231 of the 323 seats are held by what are called "veterans" from the mainland like Wu, men in their 70s and 80s who were last elected in 1947 and have held their seats ever since under the "national emergency."
Because these legislators have not run for reelection in decades, You Ching of the Democratic Progressive Party says, "This government is illegal and illegitimate."
The ranks of the mainland legislators are now declining rapidly, the inevitable result of sickness and death. The legislature is now less than half of its original size, and the Nationalist Party, as part of its series of political reforms, has been studying how to come up with a new legislative system.
You Ching points out that most of the mainlanders in the legislature are over the age of 85, and that the rest are between 75 and 85.
'Time Is on Our Side'
"I think time is on our side," said the spokesman for the new party.
For his part, legislator Wu freely admits to having once worked alongside the Chinese Communists. For example, Wu recalled that he personally met Chinese leader Deng and former Chinese Defense Minister Peng Dehuai while the Nationalists and Communists were fighting together against the Japanese.
But Wu maintained that the only thing he learned from this period was that "the Communists know how to cheat us." He said that he fears what may happen in the future when a younger generation of leaders, who have spent most of their lives on Taiwan, takes over.
"Because they don't have experience with the Communists, they might be duped," he explained.