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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2002)
Millions of US $  406,000    
GNI per capita
 US $ 18,000
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Books on Taiwan

Update No: 037 - (28/03/07)

Perhaps the most important date in the Taiwan calendar-other than the Lunar New Year-is "Peace Memorial Day" otherwise known as the anniversary of the 2-28 incident. The day commemorates an uprising that began on February 28 1947 and which was brutally put down by the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) Government, resulting in the deaths of between 10,000 and 20,000 innocent civilians. For many years, 2-28 served as the divide between the "mainlanders" who fled to Taiwan with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek at the end of the Chinese civil war and the native Taiwanese whose aspirations to nationhood following the end of the Japanese occupation were brutally suppressed.

The Nationalist Party, now in opposition, has never quite come to terms with the 2-28 incident and during the years of martial law even public mention of it was illegal. Despite the passage of 60 years, it is still an emotive issue, especially in southern Taiwan (the uprising was triggered by an event in the southern city of Kaohsiung)-the DPP heartland.

With the whiff of an election in the air, it comes as no surprise that President Chen Shui-bian and his administration have used the occasion to press yet again their own nationalistic agenda which seeks to carve out an identity for Taiwan separate from that of China. It provides another opportunity to remind the electorate of the past sins of the Kuomintang .

Last month (February 2007), the government announced it was changing the names of some key agencies to remove the word "China" and emphasise the "Taiwan" aspect. Formally, the name of the country is "The Republic of China on Taiwan" but this is often abbreviated to "China by the press and foreigners alike, giving an erroneous and misleading impression. That at least is the reason given by the government for the name change. In fact, as just about everyone knows, the real reason is to better enable Taiwan to carve out its own identity as a nation separate from China. It does no harm that in so doing, the DPP is able to discomfort its nationalist rivals.

The DPP is also using the opportunity to expunge Taiwan of its totalitarian past. Part of this effort is directed at removing statues of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Many statues of the late dictator have been removed from prominence in recent years and placed in a "propaganda park" in Taoyuan, a county just south of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, also in Taoyuan county has been renamed recently and is now the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Now comes the thorny issue of what to do with the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park in Taipei and especially the towering statue of the late dictator that dominates the park. Many in government want to tear down the walls of the park and remove the statue of former President Chiang. One newspaper columnist went so far as to suggest, with tongue in cheek no doubt, that the huge statue should be transported to the Taoyuan Park where it should be half buried "osymandius style" to remind the world of the megalomaniac tendencies of the late dictator.

It is symptomatic of the fragile nature of Taiwan's democracy that issues such as the name change (or even use of the name "Taiwan"), a frank assessment of the 2-28 incident and history's judgement on Chiang Kai-shek, should all continue to be emotive issues that divide the government and the KMT-led opposition. Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975 and the divide between mainlanders and Taiwanese that characterized Taiwan life during the martial law period (which lasted from 1948 to 1987-the longest period of continuous martial law in recent history within a non-communist society) has, for the most part passed into history.

President Chen Shui-bian has one year remaining in office and is preparing his legacy. Much of that legacy has to do with cross-straits relations of course and the seeking of recognition for a free and independent Taiwan; but so too does that legacy involve coming to terms with Taiwan's authoritarian past and its recent history. Sadly, the opposition parties continue to deny much of that past and many of its leaders continue to treat the generalissimo as if he was the hero of Taiwan which, of course, he was not. As one commentator recently pointed out "…Taiwan did not suffer because of Mao. In reality, it suffered from the corruption of the KMT and Chiang following their defeat by Mao. The KMT never mentions the reality of this attempted purging. Rectification and avoidance of their past history where they claimed that defeat gave them the privilege to be colonizers."

It is against this background-and in full knowledge that the present infighting between the four DPP presidential candidates may well play into the hands of the opposition come election time-that Mr. Chen continues to articulate his cause. A hard-hitting and pro-independence speech made shortly after the 2-28 commemoration was sufficient to destabilize the local stock market, gave opposition lawmakers a fresh excuse to accuse the President of risking war with China (a claim they make just about every time President Chen opens his mouth) and set off fresh alarm bells within the U.S. State Department.

Mr. Chen said in his speech: "Taiwan will say yes to independence" and alluded to a change in the nation's official name to Taiwan, while discussing a new constitution for the country. The only question for Taiwan, he added, was "independence or assimilation" (with China).

The State Department official reminded Mr. Chen of his 2000 pledge on the "four noes" and his 2004 inaugural pledge to exclude issues related to sovereignty from any reforms to the constitution as the "cornerstone of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait." The spokesman urged Mr. Chen to "make it clear" what his policy was and to make sure that "he continues to adhere to his previous commitments." He also said Mr. Chen's adherence to his previous commitments "is a test of leadership, dependability and statesmanship, and his ability to protect Taiwan's own interests, its relations with others and to maintain peace and stability in the Strait." 

Perhaps it was no coincidence that the day preceding the 2-28 commemoration, was the anniversary of another watershed event for Taiwan: the 1972 Shanghai communiqué which led to the break in diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei, the recognition of the People's Republic of China, and the expulsion of Taiwan from the United Nations under the "One China" policy.

Back in 1972, of course, Taiwan was still under martial law and the rival totalitarian leaderships in Beijing and Taipei were rather akin to Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Thirty five years on from that event, considerable change has taken place across the Taiwan Straits. According to opinion polls more than 60 percent of the population of Taiwan consider themselves to be Taiwanese and not Chinese and identification with Taiwan-and the democratic values it now espouses-has long transcended the political divide. Yet while circumstances have clearly changed, the United States (not to mention the PRC) remains locked in a rubric from another age.

President Chen has finally decided to appoint a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) member to be the nation's top representative to the United States. Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Joseph Wu has been selected for Taiwan's top diplomatic job and in doing so, Mr. Chen has fit the last piece into the DPP's diplomatic puzzle. US-Taiwan relations are crucial to the nation's diplomatic, security and cross-strait interests, so the appointment of Wu has been hailed as a very good decision. 

Wu's predecessors, Chen Chien-jen and David Lee both hailed from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) since the DPP, then new to government lacked experienced members with appropriate diplomatic credentials. After becoming president, Chen has sent a number of DPP members to learn the diplomatic ropes as deputy representatives to the US, but he has until now demonstrated his respect for the professionalism required by the job by retaining the more qualified KMT members in the top post. 

In finally sending one of its own to Washington. Mr. Chen now has the opportunity for the DPP to make its mark on US-Taiwan relations and will no longer have the views of the Taiwan government filtered through a KMT prism. This may go some way to allying US fears of precipitate action on the part of Taiwan's president while at the same time allowing the DPP better influence within the corridors of power in the US capital.

With elections looming for a new presidency and a new reformed legislature, there is a measure of uncertainty in the air as to how much further the reform process will go. A KMT president next year is a distinct possibility. The Nationalists never lost control of the legislature and while a KMT president would not herald a return to the dark ages (and would serve well the business climate-removing much of the uncertainty that exists at the present time) it can be expected that the process of critical self-examination of Taiwan's past as a key to determining its future will be held firmly in check.

So President Chen will, as long as he can, cling to the issue of self-identity as a precursor to self-determination. Much of it will be political as over coming months the DPP seeks to provide a distinctive vision of the future, using every opportunity to discomfort the opposition over the skeletons that remain in its closet. Pursuit of a distinctive Taiwanese identity and coming to terms with Taiwan's authoritarian past are for the most part domestic issues but they will inevitably impact on the cross-straits relationship and by implication that of the broader US China relationship.

On the chessboard of politics, Mr. Chen at last seems to be playing the game rather well.

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