Lee Teng-hui
Lee Teng-hui; drawing by David Levine


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 fiercely. Very few people in the crowd that was calling for independence as soon as possible said that they thought of Lee as what Peking calls a “splittist,” someone who wants to permanently sever Taiwan from the mainland. But, as will become clear, Peking is right about Lee.

So far as I could see, the Taiwanese, who only ten years ago risked jail for having outspoken anti-KMT views, were now uninhibited about expressing every sort of opinion. The slogan painted on a bed sheet draped across the front of a van put it directly: “Fuck China.”

The owner of a photography shop said, “Lee thinks that Taiwan is part of China. The KMT has controlled Taiwan for forty years, and we still don’t even have a name, and we’re not part of the United Nations. We are not Chinese, we are Taiwanese.”

“Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, too, but 98 percent of them say they are Singaporean, not Chinese,” said a professor at the National University. “If Chinese come here, I’ll fight.”

A mild-mannered Taiwan-born law professor in his sixties, educated in Göttingen, and whose German was better than his Mandarin or English, came through the crowd on March 17 listening to one of the weekly “underground seminars” being broadcast on an unlicensed radio station. “Taiwan is Taiwan, not part of China,” he said. “There is no evidence or law to show it’s part of China. Lee wants to unify, but that would be death.” He made a pistol with his hand. “And we don’t want to be dead.”

The entire event surged with the same political euphoria that we saw in Tiananmen Square, but without any bloody consequences whatever, and this seemed to underline the challenge that the Taiwan elections pose for Peking.

The Chinese Communist state in recent decades has had to deal with “splittists” in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia, but the peoples involved, although called Chinese by the regime, both linguistically and in other basic respects, come from non-Chinese cultures. The men and women demanding independence in Taiwan, however, speak a Chinese dialect, read Chinese characters, and come from an unquestionably Chinese Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist background. Their island had been under rulers from the Chinese mainland until 1895, when the Japanese took it over. Only after the defeated Japanese left in 1945 did Chiang Kai-shek’s government take control of Taiwan.


When the people I talked to said, “We are Taiwanese, not Chinese,” they were making a political statement; they were not much different from the American colonists of the eighteenth century who demanded freedom from the Britain where many of them had originated. Here lies China’s danger. Although for 2000 years there were long periods of disunity when the country fell into independent or semi-independent kingdoms or warlord territories, most regional potentates were pretenders to the imperial throne and advocates of unity. In Taiwan, the marching men, women, and children were demanding something much more limited: an independent island. But the demand was limited only with respect to physical size. The banner that said “Fuck China” and the signs saying “One China, One Taiwan” posed a threat to Peking. So did the steady renaming of streets and parks which now have local, even aboriginal names, like Katagelan, the name of a tribe, replacing KMT names like Reunification Road; the disgusted older people originally from the mainland, steadily declining in proportional numbers and influence, resolutely refuse to learn the new names.

Except for a few firebrands from the DPP advocating total independence, no one I met anywhere on Taiwan, including its outer islands, bragged about beating back the mainland invaders. A war, it was generally agreed, would be horrible. But Taiwan has shown itself well able to resist Chinese pressure. Unlike Hong Kong it is guarded from immediate mainland assault by an excellent army, by the Taiwan Strait, and by the possibility of American defense. Nor is it encumbered, as Hong Kong is, by an unbreachable treaty which makes reunification inevitable on a certain day. Whatever Taipei and Peking may say about ultimate reunification, the last real military collision between them came in 1958, when mainland shore batteries bombarded Quemoy and Matsu.

What happened to interrupt this seeming coexistence, and in so spectacular a fashion that 620 international journalists came to a small island with a population of about 21 million to watch 14 million of them vote? Part of the attraction was the possibility of an accident which could transform Peking’s war games into some sort of battle, possibly involving what US Defense Secretary Perry called “the best damn navy in the world.”

The new crisis over Taiwan began last spring when President Lee announced he would attend, in June, a college reunion at Cornell, where he had received his doctorate in agricultural economics in 1968. Peking demanded that this leading opponent of its claim to Taiwan should not be given a visa for this trip and, in May, Warren Christopher assured Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that he would not. When the Republican Congress insisted that Lee receive a visa after all, Christopher had to explain to the Chinese that under American democracy there were limitations on presidential power. This was an embarrassment for Qian, and something which China’s leaders did not want to believe, although they have experts on America who could have explained it to them if they had been willing to listen.

Peking’s leaders are convinced anyway that in its policy toward China the US is waging “smokeless warfare” and that it favors a “peaceful evolution” of Chinese communism into something else. They believe that Washington was secretly encouraging Taiwan to proclaim de jure independence. Lee had already offered the United Nations $1 billion in exchange for membership in June 1995. It looked, in Peking, as if Lee was spurning a reasonable-sounding offer of a deal made the year before by President Jiang Zemin. Under that deal Taiwan would accept a long-term plan for reunification—but for how long a term no one can say. By making this offer, and then being thwarted by Taiwan and the US when Lee made his fateful trip to Cornell, Jiang put himself at the mercy of the saber rattlers in the army.

The apparent collaboration between Lee and the US in administering a snub to the Peking leaders has been repeatedly mentioned in the Chinese press for a year, as if to justify Peking’s subsequent show of force in the Taiwan Strait, the cancellations of high-level meetings with the US, the recall of the Chinese ambassador from Washington, and cessation of discussions with Taiwan on shipping and trade guarantees.

Throughout July and August of 1995, with only mild protests from Washington, China fired missiles into the waters near Taiwan and conducted war games that included mock landings and the use of live ammunition. There was a brief lull in December, when candidates favoring eventual reunification did well in elections for Taiwan’s legislature. Meanwhile Peking was concentrating what eventually amounted to 150,000 soldiers along the coast directly facing Taiwan, and menacing the islands of Quemoy, Little Quemoy, and Matsu, from which one can easily see the mainland. In March, with the presidential election a few weeks away, Chinese missiles again began landing in the ocean near Taiwan. To express the army’s often stated conviction that its “holy task” was to maintain Chinese unity, the big war games began, with thousands of troops charging ashore on mainland beaches resembling Taiwan’s. The US dispatched two naval battle groups to the western Pacific, the largest such force seen in those waters since the Vietnam war. Much cited in Peking was Deng Xiaoping’s statement of a few years ago that China would use force if Taiwan attempted to go independent.



The plain fact is that Taiwan is independent, with a few anomalous limitations. It has a flag, a national anthem, an army, and a government which now includes a democratically elected president. Few governments recognize it, although it is one of the world’s major traders. But no matter how many billions President Lee offers, the United Nations is not going to enrage China by even considering some sort of recognition for Taiwan.

Taiwan, moreover, has abandoned since the 1980s any claim that it has the right to assert by force its status as the legitimate government of all of China, including Tibet and Mongolia. And this comes close to abandoning as well the concept of One China, including Taiwan, to which Richard Nixon agreed in the early Seventies. The idea of One China was reasserted in 1979 when the Carter administration gave full recognition to Peking and broke its defense treaty with Taiwan, while continuing to assert that the US continued to oppose “any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security of the people of Taiwan.” This promise lay behind the “constructive ambiguity” of American statements made this past March, as the Independence and the Nimitz cruised closer and closer to the Taiwan Strait. The White House and the State Department insist that Peking was repeatedly warned that its military threats were being viewed very seriously.

Such ambiguity, creative or not, explains why no country, including the United States, has accused China of breaking international law with its war games and missile firing, which, after all, were conducted in the vicinity of what most countries officially say is a Chinese province. All the US has been able to claim is that the games and missiles are violent threats that disturb the peace of the region, which is true enough. What no American official will say out loud is that Taiwan has been increasingly independent since 1949, and that, as Lee Teng-hui likes to say, the Communist regime in Peking has not ruled the island for a single minute. Even the Taiwanese presidential candidates urging reunification became vague when asked when it might take place. They said it would take perhaps decades, even centuries, and then only when “the system changed” on the mainland.

Until Lee announced this election, a genuinely popular one, Peking was able to swallow a good deal of Taiwanese independence because it was informal. At international meetings delegates from the island sat behind little signs with such formulas on them as “China-Taipei,” and Taiwan’s athletes competed at the Olympics and Asian Games with similar words on their banners. Like the CCP, which it historically preceded, the exiled KMT is a Leninist structure, although it is now barely a skeleton. Its presidents, Chiang Kai-shek, his son Chiang Ching-kuo, and Lee Teng-hui, were chosen by KMT conclaves. When democratic elections were allowed during the 1980s for county and provincial legislatures, and for mayors and governors, these could be dismissed by Peking as local activities peculiar to Taiwan Province. But the president who was elected in March uses the word “national.” Independence is bad enough; real elections for a government spat in Peking’s face by undermining the increasingly dubious myth of “China-Taiwan.”

Taiwan also poses a second traditional problem for Chinese rulers: an unreliable frontier region could be a base, or entry point, for foreign invaders. This explains a particular form of abuse. Taiwan’s President Lee, Hong Kong’s Governor Chris Patten, and Tibet’s Dalai Lama have been singled out for personal insults—“criminal,” “splittist,” “whore”—which would never be directed at Bill Clinton, no matter how much he were disliked in Peking. This abuse helps to maintain the Big Lie: that the inhabitants of what is in fact an estranged region long for reunion with the motherland, from which ill-intentioned leaders keep them divided.

Peking has made a demon of Lee Teng-hui. He is particularly irritating because he is not an easy man to pin down. He insists he is not creating an independent Taiwan, yet during the campaign he would shout, “We are going to be masters of our own country. Since the beginning of Chinese history this is the greatest year.” He maintains—just barely—the central dogma that Taiwan is a part of China—but he says that reunification must wait for a change in the system on the mainland. He will, in short, only settle for an independent nation-province that will retain its independence until the Communist Party vanishes.

Lee was born in 1923 near Taipei when Taiwan was a Japanese colony, which it had been since 1895, when China lost the island in the Sino-Japanese war. He had an early Japanese education, as well as a period in an elite Japanese university during World War II. His brother was killed fighting in the Imperial Japanese Army. Lee’s most fluent second language, after Taiwanese, a southern Chinese dialect, is Japanese, and his Mandarin Chinese is awkward. In interviews which have caused him difficulty in Taiwan and in China, Lee told Japanese journalists how close he still felt to Japan. But he maintains he is an ardent Presbyterian, while also comparing himself to Moses, who led his people to freedom, and to the goddess Matsu, the traditional protectress of Taiwan. He claims, too, that he is a thoroughly modern man and he gives his traditionalist KMT colleagues lectures on science and technology. But he also runs a traditionally corrupt political machine.

Lee has been a minister in KMT governments since 1972. He takes credit, along with his predecessor, Chiang Kai-shek’s son President Chiang Ching-kuo, who died in 1988, for turning Taiwan into a democratic state. He also gave up Taiwan’s claim to retake the mainland, and encouraged trade, negotiations over investment, and communications with Peking, where some Taiwanese politicians have had talks with President Jiang Zemin. He made it clear that pro-Taiwanese plane hijackers on the mainland, who at one point were seizing a passenger jet every week or so and diverting it to Taiwan, would be returned across the strait. While Taiwan businesses have invested hundreds of millions in the mainland, no one really thinks Lee was moving closer to Peking politically. Whatever he did made Taiwan seem strong and its President statesmanlike. He said recently that in the present crisis “cutting off talks is them; missiles is them; objections to our elections is them.”

Lee’s main adversary in the presidential race, Peng Ming-min of the DPP, got 20 percent of the vote and certainly would have won more if Peking’s threats had not frightened voters into supporting President Lee and the status quo. Peng also had an elite Japanese education, and he says his missing arm is the result of an American bombing raid. His Democratic Progressive Party opposes unification at any time: “All we have to do is affirm we are already independent,” he says. For years Peng was either a political prisoner of the KMT or in political exile, and he disputes Lee’s claim to be a political messiah. Just before the election, asked whether the KMT deserved credit for Taiwan’s democracy, Peng said, “For fifty years Taiwanese paid an enormous price in execution, torture, prison, and exile. We have thousands of martyrs. The KMT couldn’t resist the pressure.”

It is hard to know where to assign the main credit for the transformation. Antonio Chiang, for years Taiwan’s most interesting independent journalist, told me, “We used to have 10,000 political prisoners here, many of them on our own little gulag, Green Island. Their sentences amounted to seven thousand years. All the leaders of the DPP have been in prison. Not many governments would open up a system like that without there having been violence or the threat of violence.” (I remember from my own student days in Taipei that it seemed to foreigners a daring act even to utter the name “Green Island.”)

Peking sees clearly what Lee Tenghui has been doing. The time is not far off, perhaps only a few years, when Taiwan’s independence could move from de facto to de jure, when President Lee and his successors would no longer have to use university reunions or international sports meetings as excuses for foreign appearances, and threats of force against Taiwan would be regarded as threats to world peace.

An invasion now, except of one of the offshore islands, would be impossible. In two or three years, although at great cost, the People’s Liberation Army will be able to crash ashore on Taiwan’s beaches, but what it would do then with a population in which millions of men have received military training no one can say. It is true, too, that it can bring all kinds of other pressures to bear on Taiwan, attempting to strangle it economically—although this would damage its own economy, in which Taiwan has been a major investor—and to isolate it from international contact. This threat of isolation lies behind the constant attempts by President Lee to put the island on the international map.

And here lies Peking’s great failure this past March. President Jiang is lucky that he does not preside over a democratic government. By now, a British-style government would have fallen. An American-style government would have been subject to major upheaval, with many political resignations and a reshuffling among military officials.

Without the Chinese threats, Lee Teng-hui would probably have received 40 percent of the vote and won the presidency with a shaky mandate. Instead he got 54 percent, a percentage referred to even by Lee’s supporters as “Jiang’s gift” to them. Taiwan’s voters did not stay away from the polls; upward of 70 percent voted. Those who had been hankering after some sort of rapprochement with the mainland, even if a very distant one, are thinking again. It will be hard now for the exponents of the barren notions of “Asian” or “Confucian” values—championed by authoritarians in China, Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, and Hong Kong—to assert convincingly that what Asians prefer is stern but just government which satisfies their material needs and that they distrust democracy, which they fear leads to what Peking calls luan, or “chaos.” In Hong Kong, Peking’s war games and missiles accelerated fears of what what will happen when Peking takes charge in 1997. Conversely, it can no longer be said that Peking will never behave really badly in Hong Kong because that would upset Taiwan about its future.

Finally, not only did Peking’s threats install Taiwan on the mental map of millions of international newspaper readers and television watchers. They made Taiwan an important election-year issue in the US and forced Bill Clinton to make a difficult military decision when he moved the two aircraft carriers, although he was probably also receiving Chinese assurances that there would be no immediate invasion.

What is dangerous about this outcome is that China has a weak polity; it is beset by huge official corruption, and peasant and industrial-worker unrest, and it is encumbered by useless state industrial enterprises which devour much of its internal budget but cannot be dismantled because they employ hundreds of thousands of workers. Ambitious and uninspiring leaders maneuver within this unstable environment, attempting to look tough abroad while Deng Xiaoping slips from the scene. This means that the coercive tactics toward Taiwan will continue, even though China is defying what might look like common sense, risking international obloquy, isolation, and pariah status. Hence Deng’s willingness to order the Tiananmen crackdown in full view of the international press; he did so because the survival of the Party was at stake. Hence the continued Chinese practice of stealing foreign intellectual property, although this keeps China out of the World Trade Organization; the fact is that the army runs many of the factories which pirate compact discs and software. Hence the imprisoning of virtually all political dissidents; it causes considerable irritation in diplomatic dealings, but the regime still sees any fundamental criticism as a dangerous virus. And hence the threats to Taiwan; for no territory, from Tibet to Hong Kong, can be allowed to harbor thoughts of genuine semi-autonomy, except economically. The danger for Peking is that such hopes could spread to rich regions around Shanghai and Canton, which already display a degree of defiance of the central government.

Until this spring there were usually some reporters from the mainland stationed on Taiwan, although what they published was limited largely to economic matters. There were none there this spring, although if they had been there and seen what was actually happening they could not have written about it for their papers. During the elections in Taipei and on Quemoy I watched, on local stations, up to half an hour of more or less straightforward news from Peking, with plenty of statements attacking Taiwan. There was no news from Taiwan on mainland TV during the same period, although there was editorial commentary attacking Lee and a little coverage of the elections. After Lee won, official spokesmen in Peking said the elections were a defeat for the proindependence forces, but they did not note that Lee and Peng, the two candidates who one way or another represented keeping Taiwan as it is, took well over 70 percent of the vote. The pro-unification candidates did very badly.

Andrew Nathan of Columbia University thinks Peking will resume its military pressure on Taiwan, apply economic pressure, and perhaps impose some sort of blockade. “By acting decisively, Beijing believes it can isolate Taiwan, impose unbearable pain, and force capitulation. China’s strategy is therefore to escalate military pressure in order to test US resolve and locate Taiwan’s breaking point.”

Taiwan officials say they hope the US will provide military defense but the people I talked to have little expectation of this. On a visit to Quemoy, I cycled up to a farmer raking his garden and asked him what he expected from the US. “Nothing. They will suit themselves. Look what happened in Iraq. They actually defeated the Iraqi army, right? Then what did the Americans do? They went home. Saddam is still there, right? Forget the Americans.” He gestured toward the Fukien coast, clearly visible across the water. “We definitely don’t want a war with them.”


During its conflict with the mainland, Taiwan itself should not be idealized. It is indeed a doughty island democracy defying the world’s biggest dragon. Its citizens are wildly enthusiastic about having an open politics and they genuinely seem to believe in the principle of live and let live. Foreign correspondents used to living in cities on the mainland appreciated the courtesy, friendliness, and the intensity of Taiwanese political discourse; no one first looks over his shoulder when he denounces Taiwanese leaders.

But one of the reasons that Jiang Zemin’s “gift” to Lee Teng-hui—the gift of issuing a challenge that rallied people to Lee’s side—was so valuable was that it blunted the debate about the island’s official corruption. By bringing into political life more than twenty years ago the long-excluded Taiwanese, who since 1949 have had most of the money in Taiwan, the KMT, itself always a corrupt party, also introduced into the heart of government the Taiwanese “black societies,” Mafia-style gangster syndicates with strong clan and territorial power. “We have a saying,” said Yang Tai-shuenn, an academic and member of the Taiwan provincial assembly. “If you don’t get elected you go to jail.” Many of these gangsters were appointed heads of county governments by the KMT. Some 140 members of the 175-strong provincial assembly have been indicted for buying votes and almost all of them were found guilty. They will probably never be sentenced.

The same holds true for Taiwan’s county and city councils and for their speakers. At the recent gigantic funeral of the capo di tutti capi of these gangs, shot dead while eating in a restaurant, most of the important political figures and parties, including the KMT, sent wreaths and representatives. “Black” candidates even ran in the elections on explicit gangster-protecting platforms.

Several members of the overseas Chinese democratic groups who have been in exile since Tiananmen, including Chai Ling, the “commander-in-chief” of the protesters, the brilliant journalist Liu Binyan, and Su Shaozhi, once the director of the State Council’s Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought Institute, came to Taiwan to observe the elections. All agreed that something astonishing had happened there politically, something for which many on the mainland are yearning. But several also said, not for the record, that they were horrified by the omnipresence of official corruption. If President Lee, who leads the corrupt KMT, which also owns the main newspapers and television stations, fails to control and cut back this corruption during the next four years, Taiwan will come to resemble Japan: democratic and deeply corrupt. In Japan this combination has badly corroded democracy.

Just before the voting I discussed the election’s significance with Liu Binyan and Su Shaozhi. They have been condemned as two of the “Black Hands” behind the Tiananmen uprising in the spring of 1989 and now live in exile in Princeton. Liu was twice expelled from the Party and spent years in detention until he left China in 1987.

“What Peking fears here is independence,” he said. “If Taiwan became a real country it would be an obvious, concrete loss by the Party, something they couldn’t hide or explain away. They can get plenty of support for their Taiwan policy in China, except among high-level intellectuals. Most Chinese know nothing about what happens in Taiwan, and they were so brainwashed for years that words like ‘Chiang Kai-shek’ and ‘Kuomintang’ still make them anxious. There is also a kind of ignorant superficial nationalism in China, which has nothing to do with making the country better. Its believers insist that Taiwan like Tibet must not be torn away from China.”

It is ignorant to blame Jiang Zemin alone, Liu said. “The whole Central Committee agreed on the military pressure, too. It’s not like 1979, when it was Deng Xiaoping personally who ordered the invasion of Vietnam against the advice of the Army, and he was powerful enough not to get blamed for the defeat.”

Su Shaozhi, once one of the Party’s leading intellectuals, was expelled for pressing for ideological reform in the direction of Western-style democracy. He escaped from Peking to Holland immediately after June 4, 1989.

“I just telephoned a friend in Peking,” he said, “and asked him what the Party really feared in Taiwan. He said it was Mr. De.” Mr. De was the code word for Democracy used in 1919 by university students insisting that to save itself from imperialism China needed democracy.

“At first the Party got a lot of support for this action near Taiwan because many Chinese,” he said, “including democrats in the exile community, believe in reunification more than they believe in democracy.”

According to Su, the leaders in Peking made two mistakes in their expectations of what would happen. “Taiwan hasn’t surrendered and the US came to help. They never expected Clinton to do something so decisive. So they have a problem now: a rebellious province with an army. They have lost the emotional tie with the people of Taiwan; I have friends in Taiwan who were in favor of some sort of reunification. No longer.”

April 25, 1996

This Issue

May 23, 1996