Taiwan Leader Is Big Obstacle in Way of China's March to Reunification

Why is China so infuriated by a little ant?

The "ant" is Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui. A couple of weeks ago, Wen Wei Po, one of China's newspapers in Hong Kong, compared him to a tiny insect. "Like an ant trying to topple a giant tree, Lee Teng-hui disseminated his vituperative attacks against the mother mainland," the paper fumed.

Up close, Lee doesn't look so threatening. He is 73 years old and walks like a man of his age. His hair is gray, his face benign and grandfatherly. In the United States, Madison Avenue would choose him as a perfect candidate to do denture commercials.

So it is worth examining why Lee has become such an obsession with China's Communist Party leadership that 1996 might well be dubbed the Year of the Ant. There are two factors. One involves Lee's role in modern Chinese history, the other politics.

First, the history. Although he has been president of Taiwan for eight years now, it seems oddly out of place to see Lee's picture hanging on the wall of official buildings and reception rooms here as one of four people in the pantheon of leaders of the Nationalist government.

The three other pictures are of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who led Taiwan for 26 years after fleeing the Chinese mainland; his wife, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and his son by another marriage, Chiang Ching-kuo, who ruled the island from 1975 until his death in 1988.

The Chiangs were Chinese from the mainland, and the Communist leadership knew them well. The Communists had been dealing with the Chiangs and their Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, for more than 60 years. The two parties often tried to exterminate one another, but they also sometimes worked together, forming testy, messy alliances, first in the 1920s and once again to fight Japan in the late 1930s.

For decades, the Communist leadership has dreamed of regaining control of Taiwan by making some new deal with its mainland Chinese counterparts here. Lee has upset all their plans.

What Lee has done, in fostering the first direct presidential elections here and becoming the leader of a vibrant democracy, seems to mark the end of history's long dance between Chinese Communists and Nationalists.

Ten years ago, Lee seemed to be little more than a political pet rock, a token ethnic Taiwanese leader in a Nationalist Party still thoroughly controlled by Chinese who had come from the mainland.

About 80% of this island's population of 21 million are Taiwanese--that is, people born on Taiwan rather than the mainland. The Taiwanese speak their own Chinese dialect. Many Taiwanese view the Nationalists as an outside occupation force, and some of them have long sought independence for the island, which was under Japanese occupation from 1895 until the end of World War II, and then became virtually an American protectorate during the Korean War.

Those Taiwanese who joined the Nationalist Party faced the classic dilemma: They risked being accused of being sellouts by other pro-independence Taiwanese and being discriminated against by mainland Chinese within the party.

"To deal with the Chinese, we play Peking opera," confided one of these Taiwanese politicians a few years ago. "It's as if we put cosmetics on our faces and change our voices. After the show, we take off our makeup and talk normally [in Taiwanese] among ourselves."

Lee, the most prominent of the Taiwanese leaders within the Kuomintang, became Chiang Ching-kuo's vice president. Back then, he wasn't taken all that seriously. But he has proven to be a remarkably durable infighter. In the eight years since Chiang's death, he has managed to wrest control of the Nationalist Party--one of the world's richest political organizations--from all rivals, whether mainland Chinese or Taiwanese.

Lee insists that he still favors reunification with China someday, after it becomes democratic. Yet China can't overcome the suspicion that his saying this is merely a display of Peking opera--that as a native Taiwanese, he favors independence for the island.

Now, in the election campaign that ends Saturday, Lee seems to be dominating the main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, too. While the Nationalists are still committed to eventual reunification, the DPP, made up mainly of Taiwanese, believes that Taiwan is and should be independent.

In this election, the appeal of the independence forces has been muted. The more China attacks Lee, the more he emerges as a Taiwanese folk hero, a symbol of Taiwanese nationalism.

He relishes the role. At campaign stops, speaking in earthy Taiwanese rather than Mandarin Chinese, he rails against Chinese leaders for having "concrete in their brains." In some other, more ordinary campaign, Lee might have to worry about Taiwan's crime or corruption or pollution. In this election, amid China's military threats to the island, such issues seem to be irrelevant.

Even the most loyal members of the DPP now admit that the opposition party has developed what is known here as a "Lee Teng-hui complex." In droves, the party's rank-and-file seems to be deserting its presidential candidate, Peng Ming-min, to line up behind Lee.

"At this time, Lee Teng-hui is the only person who can face the Chinese missile challenge," said Chen Chi-mei, a DPP legislator in Kaohsiung. "Our own polls show that at least a third of all DPP supporters will vote for Lee Teng-hui. Maybe even half."

That raises an intriguing possibility after the election. Could Lee, having so thoroughly co-opted his opposition, later make a deal with Beijing? That would be Taiwan's home-grown version of President Nixon going to China. There are already said to be quiet, indirect contacts, back and forth, between Lee's office and the Chinese leadership.

Yet neither Lee nor any other popularly elected leader here could hand over democratic Taiwan in the simple way China once dreamed, the way Britain agreed in 1984 to hand back Hong Kong. Taiwan's electorate wouldn't allow it.

And so Chinese leaders now look back, with regret, to the era of the Chiang family, once their mortal enemies. "We missed some opportunities to negotiate with Chiang Ching-kuo," mourned one Chinese official a few weeks ago. With Saturday's election here, Chinese leaders know, there will be no turning back to the days of back-room alliances.

The second factor underlying the Beijing leadership's antipathy to Lee, and to the democratic system that is electing him, is its obsession with the need to control all aspects of Chinese political life.

Until the last decade or so, the Chinese Communist Party sought control of all of the country's economic life too. A decade ago, for example, the head of one of China's very first venereal disease clinics was asked in an interview: Who are you aiming your program at? The expected response might have been those ages 18 to 35.

"Private businessmen," she answered. "They aren't organized into official [party-controlled] work units. We can't monitor them the way we do other people."

To their credit, the leaders in Beijing gradually learned to relinquish a modicum of economic control in China. But not when it comes to politics. They don't want to have to deal with other sources of political power. And this is especially true in cases that arouse China's historic fears of a breakup of the country.

If Taiwan has its own self-governing democracy, Hong Kong might continue to press, ever harder, for one too. If Lee Teng-hui, handpicked years ago by mainland Chinese, is too strong-willed to be manipulated, might that also happen in China's minority areas, like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia? What if even the poor 6-year-old Tibetan boy whom China just began grooming to be its own future Panchen Lama turns out, many years from now, to be an uncontrollable champion of the Tibetan people?

The implications of what is happening in Taiwan extend beyond China's minority areas to the rest of the country too. "The People's Republic of China is very fearful about the possible contagious effects of this election on the mainland," observed Su Chi, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

"Two or three years ago, they were sending reporters here to cover political events like party congresses," Su noted. "This year, they have stopped everyone from responding to invitations. There's a practical blackout on all information [about Taiwan's elections] coming to the mainland."

Looking at what Taiwan's election might mean for the rest of China helps explain why China calls Lee Teng-hui an ant. Like any good housekeeper, China realizes that when you see one ant in your kitchen, it's a sign there are probably lots of others there too.

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