With the death of Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo a dynasty has ended and a period of political uncertainty has begun. Son and successor to Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan after losing control of mainland China to the Communists in 1949, Chiang was once the ruthless head of a secret-police organization committed to crushing all opposition to his father's rule. But in his final years as president, a title that he succeeded to in 1978, Chiang acted to nudge his often reluctant party colleagues toward accepting an easing of authoritarian rule. That effort has only begun. Chiang's death last week at the age of 77 raises the inevitable question of whether it will be allowed to continue.
Taiwan is one of the Western Pacific's more remarkable success stories. Its economy is flourishing, its nearly 20 million people enjoy good education and health facilities and a steadily rising standard of living. But Taiwan's political development has failed to match its economic accomplishments. Martial law was lifted only six months ago after being in force for 38 years. Not until late 1986 was permission given for an opposition party to organize. Chiang's immediate successor, Vice President Lee Teng-hui, is one of the native Taiwanese who constitute 84% of the population. But Lee, who has no political following of his own, is an exception in the political scheme of things. Power remains concentrated in the hands of transplanted mainlanders. The legislature itself is controlled by members who were last elected nearly 40 years ago.
Chiang was among those who finally accepted the need for change. In fact, there is no feasible alternative. Taiwan's growing middle class has become increasingly restive and resentful because of its lack of political freedoms. Peace and reunification overtures from the mainland have worked to weaken claims that continuing authoritarian rule is essential to protect national security. Taiwan, like South Korea, has clearly reached a stage of economic maturity where continued denial of broader political rights can only encourage instability. Chiang sensed that; some of those who stood with him in the leadership ranks continue to resist it. With Chiang's death a political crossroads has been reached. The choice is between repression or reform. At this point the decision that will be taken is by no means certain.