Taiwan is just 90 miles from the coast of mainland China but the political distance is growing by the day. While the people of Taiwan prepare to elect their president in March, the leaders in the Zhongnanhai government complex in Peking are also looking for a new emperor to replace the ailing Deng Xiaoping. However, their own deliberations over new leadership are conducted in total secrecy.
Like the Chinese mainland, Taiwan used to be run by a sometimes brutal dictatorship under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang party (KMT). Unlike any other ruling party in a one-party state, the KMT has managed to introduce genuine democracy and remain in power. The final piece of the democratic jigsaw puzzle will fall into place in March with the presidential election.
A democratic society nestling off the coast of China is bad enough in the eyes of the Communist Party, whose own mandate from history is made to look shaky, but Taiwan has added insult to injury by becoming vastly richer than China. With a per head gross national product (GNP) of US$11,000, Taiwan is ranked as the 25th richest country in the world. China's per capita GNP of $457 makes it 75th in the world prosperity league. Taiwan has also built up the world's largest hoard of foreign exchange reserves. The cash pile topped $100bn in May.
China has tolerated the Taiwan heresy of separating from the motherland for almost half a century. But there have been some sticky moments, particularly in the 1970s when Chiang Kai-shek talked big about reconquering China and the two states started lobbing small missiles at each other.
The tolerable, albeit uneasy stand off, was shattered in May when the United States effectively broke the back of Taiwan's diplomatic isolation by allowing President Lee Teng-hui to make a so called ``private'' visit to America. China responded by launching a series of missile tests to demonstrate that it had the military means to take over the rebel island. The first tests sent shock waves throughout Taiwan. Share prices plummeted. Canada and Australia's consular offices were packed with would-be emigrants.
Now, to add to Peking's anger at the visit, comes the presidential election. Taiwan has elections for all key decision making posts but, until now, avoided having an elected president because the incumbent could only claim to have the mandate of the Taiwanese people, undermining the Alice-in-Wonderland-like claim that the president in Taipei was in reality the president of all China.
Ironically, however, Peking sees a threat in the collapse of that pretension. "If China allows the democratisation of Taiwan's political process to continue then, very quickly, Taiwan becomes not just an independent political entity but an independent country," says Andrew Yang, the secretary general of the Council of Advanced Policy Studies.
He argues that this in turn puts pressure on China to deal with demands for more autonomy from Tibet and other regions unhappy with central control.
In increasingly hysterical statements, China demands that Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui be swept ``into the dustbin of history'' for pushing Taiwan towards independence. "Indepen- dence is the excuse for the attacks," says Antonio Chiang, publisher of The Journalist, a political weekly.
"They are most afraid of democracy but they choose to talk about independence. Peking has a centralised dictatorship, how can they tolerate a democratic state next door?"
The Democratic Progress Party (DPP), the largest opposition party, has long campaigned on a platform of Taiwan independence but the threat from China is now making it think again. Hsu Hsin-liang, who is trailing in the DPP's presidential primaries, tells supporters: "Taiwan is already independent: we don't have to announce it publicly.'' He then adds that if he uttered such a heresy three years ago, he would have been chucked out of the party.
His opponent Peng Ming-min, known as the Godfather of Taiwanese democracy, will have none of this. "The first step to freedom," he says, "is to say that we are the Taiwanese of Taiwan, not the Taiwanese of China. We have to ask the world to accept us as a sovereign state."
Tsai Bih-hwang, a senior KMT official, flatly says that a declaration of independence will invite a Chinese invasion, and others agree. The view is even more forcibly advanced by Wang Chien-shien, who split from the KMT to form the New Party and is its presidential candidate. He accuses his former party of "walking the road to declaring independence" and believes that this will lead directly to a war with China.
The stakes grow higher by the day. The people of Taiwan are worried but make a show of defiance. "We will definitely fight back, if they invade," says a stockbroker, but then admits that many of his colleagues are busy seeking a way out by securing a foreign passport.
President Lee is likely to be returned to office, but it is still unclear whether he will do so to lead Taiwan further away from China or to resume largely stalled talks on reunification.