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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: 083 - (24/12/10)

Just barely two weeks ahead of the latest round of local elections (held on November 27 – see our last report), former President Chen Shui-bian lost his appeal to Taiwan’s High Court against two wide-ranging bribery and corruption charges. The trials themselves were unusual and seen by many as being motivated by Chen’s political opponents who regained power in 2008. Likewise the timing of the final verdict was also considered to have been made to influence the election outcome in favour of the KMT.

The Supreme Court which heard the appeal could have allowed Chen to serve his sentences concurrently. It did not do so. He was ordered to serve 11 years on one count and 8 years on the other – and will serve a total of 19 years – reduced by the court to a minimum of 17½ years since he has already been incarcerated for more than 700 days. He will be almost 80 years old when released from his latest confinement.

“Latest”, because as a young lawyer he was incarcerated during the martial law years for advocating Taiwan’s independence from China. Many people believe that the wheel has come full circle and that the entire episode is a case of political pay-back from a KMT administration that now appears intent more than ever to curry favour with Beijing.

The Kuomintang, which celebrates its centenary year as a political party in 2011 was intended originally to be the democratic face of post-imperial China. Mao Zedong got in the way of that grand plan and when the KMT fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war period, its leaders believed that it was only a matter of time before the Communist government collapsed and the KMT would be able to return triumphantly to the mainland to take back the reins of power. For that reason until well into the 90s, the KMT kept a clear distinction between the national government of the Republic of China with its (temporary) seat in Taipei, and the Taiwan Provincial Government which held office in Taichung. There were two separate legislatures with the national legislature including seats for representatives of constituencies on the mainland of China. This charade only came to an end with reform measures introduced by Lee Teng-hui who took over the presidency upon the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988 and then won two terms in his own right in the 1990s. Since then the Taipei Provincial Government has been allowed to wither.

Lee was a native Taiwanese educated in Japan and his pro-Taiwanese sentiment was plain for all to see. When the KMT lost power to the DPP in 2000, it did not take long for the KMT heavyweights to expel Lee from the party for his pro-Taiwan views. Very little has changed over the years. The party – at least at its more senior levels – remains dominated by those with their roots on the Chinese mainland and it remains firmly allied with “big business”; indeed it still retains a vast business network from which it has not quite disengaged despite pledges to do so. Until recently at least it was the world’s richest political party; not only did it control much of business – and especially the “government-owned” monopolies on Taiwan but many of the assets surrendered by the Japanese at the end of World War II found their way into KMT hands as well. During these years, the lines between party and state were blurred to say the least. And of course we won’t mention the money made from the Burmese opium trade which the KMT used to fund its civil war against the communists back in the 1930s and which (at least until the 1970s – after that the trail becomes opaque) continued to be a major source of revenue for the party.

Trying to fathom the collective mindset of today’s KMT keeps an entire industry of Taiwan-watchers occupied – this analyst included. Clearly the party remains firmly attached to its Chinese roots and has not lost its aspiration of governing more than the island of Taiwan. While it claims to have democratised, it remains firmly wedded its Confucian ways. Western democratic traditions – embraced by Chen Shui-bian – sit uneasily on the shoulders of the KMT stalwarts; rather “democracy” is often seen as being internal to the party where consultation and consensus is valued instead of a form that embraces the general polity – the voters.

Being the party of big business, the KMT often appears mesmerised by the business opportunities offered by China and the chance for individuals to “return” to the mainland as patrons of their ancestral village. There is a comfort and familiarity about China – they speak Mandarin rather than the Taiwanese dialect and are feted for their wealth. Not only do they feel at ease – they feel important. Doing business in China is “easy”; trying to fathom how the rest of the world works is somewhat harder. Many maintain second families on the mainland – aping the mores of bygone times.

This natural affinity with the mainland – an affinity not shared by those whose ancestral home is within Taiwan – has been made so much easier by the opening of China economically and the thought that at some distant point in time, China might embrace democratic values. After all, when the Chinese leaders came down heavily on the student protesters who occupied Tien An Mien Square in the June of 1989, those leaders did not eschew democracy as a concept–they merely claimed that China was “not ready.” Much has happened over the past twenty years of course and as China has emerged as a global economic power, it can be argued that the Chinese leadership has even more to fear now from a loosening of the political chain than it did twenty years ago.

Nevertheless this “chink” in the Chinese armour may give hope to those within the KMT who dream of a political constituency running into the billions rather than the mere 20+ million residents of Taiwan island.

And as we have mentioned before in these essays, both the KMT and the CCP have Marxist roots and an organisational structure along Leninist lines. That is as true of the KMT today as it was 50 years ago. This provides a natural affinity between the two parties that – with the bitter personal animosities of civil war leaders now fading into history – a rapprochement does appear possible (maybe, perhaps).

So it is not hard to imagine that many within the KMT leadership would want to encourage this process. Politicians such as former President Chen and other DPP leaders who espouse liberty and personal freedom along western lines stand in the way of this grand design and many consider them to be “unChinese”. Silence them, discredit them and when all else fails lock them up.

And so it is that former President Chen, often hailed as the “Father” of Taiwan’s democracy has been reduced to being prisoner no 1010. On 2 December he was moved from the Taipei Detention Centre to which he was confined after his arrest shortly after the KMT resumed power, to the Taipei Prison in Taoyuan. His head was shaved in accordance with prison regulations and he is reportedly sharing a four square metre cell with another inmate.

Prosecutors are still mulling whether his paraplegic wife, Wu Shu-jen (who has been similarly sentenced) will have to serve similar jail time.

If the KMT was hoping that Chen’s incarceration would damage the DPP in the November special municipality polls, it does not appear to have done so. Indeed while at first sight nothing appears to have changed – the KMT held onto the mayoral positions in Taipei, Sinbai (Taipei County) and Taichung while the DPP held onto Tainan and Kaohsiung – yet when the results of the elections for counsellors and ward chiefs are taken into account, the DPP actually increased its vote substantially. Some analysts have speculated that the heavy-handed treatment of Chen Shui-bian encouraged people to lodge a protest vote against the KMT. This is reinforced by the fact that at least two recent polls have shown that Taiwanese believe that their political rights have been eroded since the KMT took office in 2008.

The polls affirmed that the DPP is far from being the spent force that the KMT claims it is and that it has a chance of winning back government when next the country goes to the polls in 2012. No doubt the fact that the DPP has played down its former strident stand on Taiwanese independence helped it regain the trust of many voters. The poll results show that voters want to take a middle of the road course – neither integrating with China nor opting for de jure independence.

In their efforts to shape the next election both parties have some deep soul-searching to do. Can the KMT soften its pro-China attitude and pay greater attention to the attitudes of voters? More importantly, will China allow it to do so? And can the DPP come to terms with its nationalistic fervour? These are the issues that will come to the fore over the next 18 months.

One thing is certain, the next election will be fought over the middle ground.

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