Politics in Taiwan is a deadly business, sometimes literally. Chen Shui-bian’s first public act, on the morning of his inauguration as president on May 20, was to carry his wife in his arms to their waiting car. In 1985 she had been run down by a car while her husband, one of the leaders of the then-illegal opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has now come to supreme power, was campaigning for a local magistrate’s post. Mr. Chen has always maintained that she was the victim of an assassination attempt by agents of the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT). His wife never walked again. Moreover, the new transportation minister, Yeh Chu-lan, was widowed in the early Nineties when her husband burned himself to death protesting the government’s restrictions on free speech. And in 1980, while the man who is now DPP chairman, Lin Yi-hsiung, was in jail, an assassin stabbed to death his mother and twin daughters.
Mr. Chen himself spent eight months in prison in 1985 for writing an arti-cle that offended the Kuomintang. His vice president, Annette Lu, began a twelve-year sentence in 1979 on a trumped-up charge of sedition and incitement to violence; she served five and a half years. The day before the inauguration I attended a lunch in Taipei that Ms. Lu gave for the Albuquerque, New Mexico, branch of Amnesty International, which had begun the international campaign to free her. Ms. Lu wept as she recalled that had she not been freed she probably would have died in prison, where she had been diagnosed with cancer. There were other ex-prisoners at the table. Taiwan’s last political prisoner, after twenty-seven years behind bars, was freed only in 1991.
Domestic political violence appears to have ended on Taiwan, but the military threats the Mainland has been making since the beginning of democratic politics remain alarming. In 1995 and 1996, during Taiwan’s first campaign for national president—another first in China’s history—Beijing fired missiles into the Taiwan Straits and conducted invasion exercises along the Mainland coast. The menace ceased in 1996 only after the United States moved two naval battle groups, including aircraft carriers, near Taiwan. This year, during the election campaign, in which the voters preferred Chen Shui-bian to the KMT candidate, Beijing escalated its war of words, warning Taiwan, as Deng Xiaoping had laid down years ago, that it would “use force” if the new government declared independence. After Mr. Chen’s victory on March 20, Beijing warned again that Taiwan faced a war if he refused to declare that there was only One China.
The United States added to the pressure on Taiwan during these months, with White House officials hoping that Taipei would not do anything “provocative.” A parade of American officials, think-tank strategists, and political scientists carried the same message to Taipei. It is a measure of the seriousness of this pressure that when I suggested in a recent newspaper article that Taiwan was a democracy …