China glowers as Taiwan goes to the polls

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The Independent Online

Hong Kong

China's leaders must be facing increasing frustration in their attempts to influence today's legislative elections in Taiwan, the immensely wealthy offshore island which they regard as a renegade province.

First, they have no experience of democratic elections. Secondly, they are supposed to be indifferent to their outcome in Taiwan. Thirdly, they desperately want the Taiwanese voters to give the thumbs down to President Lee Teng-hui and others who are seen as encouraging the further separation of Taiwan from the Chinese mainland.

This probably explains why Shen Guofang, China's foreign ministry spokesman, was so evasive when questioned about whether the Chinese government was trying to influence the election by holding a series of threatening military exercises off Taiwan's coast.

The military action is backed up by Cultural Revolution-style rhetoric. On Tuesday the Peking-controlled Wen Wei Po newspaper in Hong Kong wrote in glowing terms of how, "for the sake of unification of the motherland, the Fujian (the province facing Taiwan) people will once again not grudge having to make sacrifices".

It may be no more than sabre-rattling. But the Hong Kong and Taiwan press are full stories of how the Chinese government has changed the criteria for dealing with Taiwan by military means. A widely leaked Chinese government document, allegedly from a Taiwan policy committee headed by President Jiang Zemin, states that the previous criteria for deciding on the need for an invasion should Taiwan declare independence is too narrow.

According to the document it is necessary to consider military means to counter "covert independence", which means President Lee's policy of perpetuating the division of the motherland, and deliberate procrastination in reunification talks. In these circumstances China would be justified in launching a small-scale military invasion to combat a small scale-independence movement.

The effect of all this military posturing in Taiwan has oscillated from extreme concern to indifference. The local stock market is more than ever like a roller-coaster as mood-swings are reflected in the price of shares.

Yesterday, President Lee hit back at China's threats, insisting: "The ballot is stronger than the bullet." He told a group of visiting US former senators and administration officials: "The military exercises ... are negative, and the actions of Communist China are unwise."

A government official dealing with China relations said that he was aware of growing pressure from the Chinese military for greater leeway in taking action against Taiwan, and was taking it seriously.

Lee Kuo-hsiung, a politics professor at the National Chengchih University, said that although there was "an increased sense of risk", he believed that there were "weak reasons for military action" and he reckoned that China would worry about the international reaction.

China's ham-fisted election strategy is to weaken both the outright pro- independence forces in Taiwan and the majority faction in the ruling Kuomintang Party, which it sees as backing President Lee's pro-independence line. China seems to be unaware that the Kuomintang is quite capable of shooting itself in the foot without its assistance. Indeed, the threats from Peking may well have the effect of rallying support for a party which is deeply divided and surrounded by the pungent aroma of corruption.

The Kuomintang is now more openly split than at any time since Chiang Kai-shek brought his defeated forces to Taiwan in 1949.

Two leading members, the former prime minister, Hau Pei-tsun, and Lin Yang-kang, are declared runners in the March presidential election, the first in Taiwan's history.

Other senior Kuomintang officials have also entered the race against President Lee, including an 82-year-old former senior adviser to the President, Henry Kao.

Meanwhile, the breakaway New Party, with an outspoken programme of reunification with the mainland, is making some headway among younger middle-class Kuomintang supporters and old-guard military stalwarts.

The splits in the ruling party will probably do little to prevent President Lee from being re-elected but they pose serious problems for the Kuomintang in today's poll. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is rubbing its hands as the ruling party falls apart, and stands to make gains from a split in the conservative vote.

It is even possible that the Kuomintang will lose its over-all majority in the legislature.

This would move Taiwan into uncharted waters, as the legislative and executive wings of government have never before been controlled by different parties.