Democracy thrives amid China's war games

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The Independent Online


Even when the People's Liberation Army of China is doing its best to undermine the leading candidate's campaign, the democratic process in Taiwan still has its more routine aspects. Thus it was yesterday, when President Lee Teng-hui could be found reopening a renovated bridge, inspecting a temple, and addressing a town hall full of fishing folk on Penghu, a group of islands about 50km off Taiwan's western coast.

The toddlers were waving flags, elderly people were having orchids pinned to their chests, and the lion-dancers were roaring.

But while all this was going on, about 70km out at sea to the south-west, China had embarked on another day of live-fire war games. The Defence Ministry in Taipei said 20 groups of planes and 40 warships were out yesterday, a sharply higher figure than previous days, probably because the weather had improved.

Mr Lee, the front-runner for the 23 March presidential election, was showing no sign of buckling under pressure from Peking. "The man who they are most afraid of is me," he told one rally. "The Chinese Communists are very afraid of democracy and freedom. That is why they are so scared of this election. And that is why they use the manoeuvres to intimidate us."

It was the President's first visit to any of Taiwan's outlying islands since the PLA's manoeuvres and missile tests started last week, and it was a day to show defiance. The first stop was a private visit to the Penghu military headquarters, where he told troops and officers: "You have to take your responsibility, face reality, and keep a high alert." As for the crisis in relations across the Taiwan Strait, "Everything is under control, and do not worry," he said.

The Penghu archipelago - also known as the Pescadores - has 64 islands; some of them are far-flung and could be difficult to defend. Hsu Chu-chuan, the secretary of Hsi Yu, a fishing village, admitted: "I am not completely afraid, and not completely unafraid. There is some reason to be worried."

The Lee election convoy was in fighting form. The elected Governor of Taiwan, James Soong, said he was "shamed that a Communist regime in China is using force to try and intimidate us". But he promised: "Taiwan has the military strength to defend itself."

Emerging from the Tan-ho temple in Makung town, Mr Lee, a devout Christian, saw no harm in invoking another religion's spirit, Matsu, the protector of fishermen. "Matsu will never abandon Penghu, and myself as well will never abandon you," he told the assembled crowd.

Such electioneering flourishes come easily to Mr Lee these days, but it was not until he was over 50 that Mr Lee, now 73, found himself in politics.

As the island's first native-born President, Mr Lee has spent the best part of a decade in the political limelight. The son of a local government councillor during the period of Japanese occupation, the young Lee excelled academically and studied in Japan and the US, specialising on agricultural economics. After advising Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, on farming problems, in 1972 he was suddenly invited to become a minister of state, the youngest ever at that time.

By 1978 he was appointed mayor of Taipei city, and in 1981 promoted to Governor of Taiwan. In 1984 he was chosen by Chiang Ching-kuo to become his vice president, a watershed for an island state which had since 1949 been controlled by mainland Nationalist immigrants. In 1988, when Chiang Ching-kuo died, Mr Lee took over and stepped up the process of democratic change.

On 23 March, Taiwan's voters will for the first time directly elect a president, a sharp contrast with the rubber-stamp National People's Congress currently in session in Peking. "By voting you will express your democracy," Mr Lee urged his Penghu audience. "There is one thing [mainland China] does not know how to learn. That's democracy."