Taiwan on the Edge

The events in Taiwan since March 19, the day before the presidential election, can be seen as a Taiwanese version of the long wrangle between Al Gore and George W. Bush more than three years ago. No matter how the election is resolved, something like half the voters will feel cheated. In Taiwan’s case, moreover, the future of the island’s relations with Communist China may be at stake.

After weeks of lively but orderly campaign rallies, on March 19 an unknown gunman or gunmen shot and wounded the incumbent president, Chen Shui-bian, and the vice-president, Annette Lu, while they were driving through crowds in the southern city of Tainan. The shooting, Mr. Chen’s wound, and its treatment were shown repeatedly in slow motion on television. A few hours later in Taipei I was amazed to see Mr. Chen and Ms. Lu appear on the screen urging calm. In those first hours, the opposition leader, Lien Chan, appeared mildly sympathetic but already suspicious that some sort of conspiracy was involved.

The following day Mr. Chen, leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the election with a majority of 0.22 percent, fewer than 30,000 votes out of a total of 13 million. Three hundred thousand ballots had been declared invalid. The losing candidate, Lien Chan, a former vice-president of the Kuomintang (KMT) government, which had ruled Taiwan from 1949 to 2000, refused to acknowledge the result, even after the election commission declared that Mr. Chen had won. Large demonstrations clogged the center of Taipei and continued for several weeks afterward, urged on by Mr. Lien and his main supporters. A week after the shooting the White House, somewhat grudgingly, congratulated Mr. Chen. Beijing announced that it would not “stand idly by” if Taiwan descended into chaos.

As usually happens after attempts at assassination, conspiracy theories abounded. Lien described the shooting as “mysterious.” But experienced American forensic specialists, invited to Taiwan, announced after two days of investigation that the wounds and the bullets were the result of a genuine if badly botched attempt to kill President Chen. Nonetheless, a senior British diplomat assured me when I returned to London that he “knew” there was something “fishy” about the shooting. In Taiwan, after much wild speculation about who might have fired the shots—was he or she a gangster or perhaps a mainland agent?—or even whether Mr. Chen had wounded himself, there is still no reliable evidence about the assassin.

The tumult and recriminations must not be allowed to obscure the basic fact that Taiwan continues to be a democracy and, as its presidents and opposition party leaders have emphasized since 1997, an independent country. One might say “the first democracy on Chinese soil,” but most people on the island insist they are Taiwanese. Few would have predicted this in 1958, when I went to study on the island for four years. Taiwan was an autocracy then, under martial law. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, the Kuomintang, which had abandoned the mainland after the…

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