Ruffling Beijing's Feathers

Who's Afraid of Lee Teng-hui?

Lee Teng-hui celebrates with Kang Shui-mu at a rally last year (Photo: AFP).

When it comes to ruffling Beijing's feathers, no one seems to have mastered the art as well as former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui. Few can forget the irate response from China in July 1999 after Lee proposed that talks between the two historic rivals must take place on a "state-to-state" basis. Nor did Lee's visit to Japan in April this year—purportedly to seek medical treatment for his heart condition—earn Lee any favor with the Communist Party brass in Beijing; they suspected that there were political and diplomatic intentions behind the trip. But his most recent move has truly got, not only Beijing, but his own party, the Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) Party, hopping mad: Lee has publicly thrown his support behind President Chen Shui-bian, the leader of the KMT's sworn opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Lee, now 78, appears to be breaking with the party he led for 12 years and this month begins working to launch a new political faction.

Controversial as the news is, it did not come as a shock to either party. The rumor that Lee's loyalties lie with Chen, and not Lien Chan, his former vice -president and current KMT leader, has been in the air at least since the March 2000 presidential election. The KMT, which had enjoyed a half-century of political dominance, took the loss hard, and members gathered to rally outside KMT headquarters the day after the election. Indignant over what they believed was the former president's betrayal, demonstrators accused Lee of sabotaging the party by banishing James Soong, the party favorite, from the KMT and endorsing Lien Chan, who was vice president at the time, instead. The move, his detractors charged, split KMT votes between two candidates and so benefited the DPP's Chen. Hurling epithets like "sell-out" and "traitor," demonstrators demanded that Lee step down from his party's leadership.

Now they want Lee expelled from the party.

Lee, who, like Chen, is Taiwan-born and pro-independence, comes to the latter's rescue at an opportune time. Parliamentary elections are coming up in December. And according to analysts, Lee's hope is that a new, middle-of-the-road party could steal some much-needed seats away from the KMT majority and free Chen from political paralysis.

Until now, Chen's stint in office of little over a year has been Sisyphean at best. His agenda is stymied at every turn by the KMT-dominated legislature (225 KMT seats versus 66 DPP seats); he is blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the economic downturn; and he was even threatened with impeachment last fall over his decision to scrap the construction of the country's fourth nuclear power plant, a project on which the KMT had already spent more than US$313 million.

But will Lee's plan to help the beleaguered Chen work? First of all, instead of siphoning votes away from the KMT, the new party might steal votes from the DPP. What's more, Lien Chan and James Soong, chairman of a KMT splinter group known as the People First Party, have already joined forces against their former mentor. Though they ran against each other in the presidential election, the adversaries have since reconciled—no doubt because of a shared resentment toward Lee. And lastly, many are concerned that Chen, who is already distrusted by the mainland, would not stand a better chance of improving ties with Beijing with another "splittist"—as the Chinese Communist Party calls Lee— by his side.

Lee's bold move is sure to further divide Taiwan's population, pitting those who favor reunification against those who seek greater independence from the mainland. And the island is already heavily polarized. Today, mainlanders who have lived in Taiwan for the better part of their lives are still referred to as wai sheng ren (an individual from an outside province), not tai wan ren, or Taiwanese, as the Taiwan-born are called. When Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist forces first retreated to Taiwan after the 1949 battle against Mao Zedong's communist forces and rid the island of Japanese rule, many Taiwanese hoped for better treatment. Liu Shu-Chiu, a Taiwanese candidate for a Ph.D. in education, recalls, "Of course, in the beginning, when the Chinese took over, ending Japanese colonization, we were thrilled. But we soon discovered that they treated us no better." The older generation still remembers the White Terror during the 1950s in which thousands of Taiwanese were killed, arrested, or exiled by the newly arrived mainlanders. For this reason, political leaning in Taiwan is still largely based upon where a person was born.

The latest polls reveal that 70 percent of Taiwanese still oppose reunification with China, but these attitudes are gradually changing. A July 5 report in the Far Eastern Economic Review says that a growing number of Taiwanese are setting up homes in China, particularly in Shanghai. For decades, Taiwan has been doing business with the mainland, taking advantage of its cheap labor and land. But now that Taiwan's own economy is faltering, the trend of going west toward the opportunities proffered by the mainland is gaining even more momentum.

Surely, this is not a trend that Lee looks happily upon. In the late 1980s and 1990s, he even discouraged the outflow of domestic capital by implementing a "no haste, be patient policy," which limited Taiwanese investment in China.

The aging Lee doesn't wield the weighty presidential power to do such a thing now, of course—although it's plain that he still has a few tricks up his sleeve and has no intentions of exiting the political stage. Bailing his protégé Chen out of these tough times and steering Taiwan in the direction of independence and economic prosperity may be his greatest challenge yet.