For foreign correspondents who had been present in Peking’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the events of the night of March 17, 1996, in the plaza in front of the Taipei city hall, showed more clearly than any other what the China-Taiwan crisis is about.
With the first truly democratic election in history for a Chinese president only a few days away, 20,000 supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which stands for full Taiwanese independence, were holding a rally in which the burning of an effigy of Deng Xiaoping was only a sideshow. Since 1989 none of us who have been reporting for years from the mainland had heard so many thousands of voices demanding that the national leader himself, in this case Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui, “get off the stage,” or resign; they were also shouting, “Down with the Kuomintang” (KMT), the ruling party. These cries were only an amplification of what we heard nightly on Taipei’s radio talk shows when callers described the KMT leaders as “hoodlums”—liumang—and President Lee Teng-hui, who was soon to be reelected, as the chief hoodlum.
Also reminiscent of Tiananmen Square seven years ago were the professors and young intellectuals who conducted seminars on the history of Taiwan with hundreds of young people squatting on the ground, while excited demonstrators buttonholed every foreign journalist in sight to tell them of the iniquities of the president and the KMT, and to explain that while Taiwanese were ethnic Chinese, politically they were independent. They wanted, the professors said, nothing to do with the Republic of China, an alien, defeated regime that had fled to Taiwan in 1949, uninvited by the original inhabitants, who today make up 85 percent of the population, and who have long been tired of rule by the heirs of Chiang Kai-shek’s mainlanders.
There were armed police in and around Taipei’s central square that evening, and for those who remembered how in Peking in 1989 the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police smashed their way into Tiananmen Square, it was astounding to watch the Taipei police briskly directing traffic through the tumultuous throng as if it were no more than a crowd leaving a football match.
Peking would have called what was being declaimed in that square subversive, but it was something else. It was the kind of energetic, frantic, and occasionally libelous political discourse that one can still hear on Hyde Park Corner. It ranged from insistence on alternative views of Taiwan’s status to charges that had a McCarthyist tinge, directed mostly against President Lee by militants from the DPP and his other main adversaries. Some said that Lee had been a Communist in his university days in Taipei. In fact he had probably belonged to left-wing groups that were anti-KMT. But listening to the excited crowds during that warm Taipei night, I wondered for a moment if Peking was not making a big mistake in attacking Lee so …