Beijing raises the heat on Taiwan

Issue 

By Eva Cheng China's Prime Minister Li Peng warned on January 30 that Beijing would "use force" against Taiwan if it declared independence or was "encouraged by anti-China forces to do so". The warning came shortly after the New York Times reported that Beijing had informed the US of a plan to attack Taiwan militarily soon after the island's presidential election on March 23 — its first ever by popular vote. Beijing denied that report but reaffirmed its intention to reunify with Taiwan on its own terms. On February 5, the Washington Post and the Hong Kong-based Sing Tao Daily both reported that Beijing would soon launch another massive military exercise in its territories and waters just opposite Taiwan, involving up to 400,000 troops and lasting a month. Beijing renewed the intimidation against Taiwan following the early January success of Taiwan's Vice President Li Yuan-Zu in obtaining a US transit visa. Major military exercises were launched last June after the US allowed entry to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-Hui for an unofficial visit. Lee's moves, including increasing interest in seeking readmission to the UN, are regarded by Beijing as acts to split China, of which it considers Taiwan "an inalienable part". In September, Beijing backtracked from its implied January 1995 assurance of not militarily invading Taiwan, now issuing nine conditions under which it would do so, particularly if Taiwan seeks independence from China or joins the UN "under the influence of the West". On December 19, the US aircraft carrier Nimitz made a surprise detour to the Taiwan Strait, a rare move since 1978, when the US switched its recognition of China to Beijing from Taiwan. The move was seen as provocative. Students in Taiwan protested and demanded that the US stop interfering in Taiwanese affairs. Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years until 1945 after it was ceded by China under force to imperialist Japan. The Kuomintang (KMT), the party of China's ruling class, took over Taiwan in 1945 and shifted its entire base there in 1949, after losing a civil war with the Communists on mainland China. Starting with a massacre in 1947 of 200,000 Taiwanese people who opposed its rule, the KMT ruled the island through martial law, banning all civil rights. Martial law was lifted only in 1987, on the eve of the end of rule by the Chiang family — first Chiang Kai-Shek between 1945 and 1975, then his son Chiang Ching-Kuo until his death in January 1988. Throughout this time, the parliament, which was"elected" during the civil war in China in 1947, continued in office and "elected" the president. The politicisation and mobilisation of the people in Taiwan have been rising dramatically in recent years. Beijing's recent intimidating moves could block this process. Political confusion seems to be increasing. An opinion poll announced by the KMT last July registered a 7.2% drop from 33.2% in the support for independence following Beijing's first missile tests. Ironically yet revealingly, the support for reunification also declined, by 1.3% from 30.4%. In parliamentary elections in December, the pro-unification New Party — formed by seven legislators who split from the KMT in 1993 — won 12.95% of the popular vote. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — the main opposition party formed in 1986 — won 33.17% of the votes, up from 31% in 1992. The KMT's votes slid to 46% from 53%. Beijing has not shown recognition of the wishes of the Taiwanese people. Even the expression of an opinion for independence is sufficient to draw accusations — prosecutions in the case of mainland people — of treason. There appears a deep-seated fear among the Taiwanese population of the prospect of being under Beijing's rule, especially after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen. Further democratisation in Taiwan can pose grave dangers not only to the KMT but also to Beijing. Not unrelated to the remarkable mobilisations and daring challenges of the democracy movement, Taiwan's political system has become less repressive, in stark contrast to China's. The first public mobilisation in Taiwan took place in 1971, triggered by a nationalistic movement to defend Daiyutai, a group of islands north-east of Taiwan, which the US planned to "return" to Japan together with Okinawa. KMT suppression of the demonstrators led to a general radicalisation and critical assessments of Taiwan's social problems, especially among students and intellectuals. Since open political formations were not possible under martial law, the movement sustained itself through a series of critical journals, many of which were banned and reincarnated under a different name. Many activists were imprisoned for extended periods, some even for life. The movement also made active use of election campaigns to reach out, mobilise and organise. More massive and brutal crackdowns in the late '70s triggered widespread outrage, which was translated partly into greater electoral success for the opposition. Riots broke out in November 1977 and December 1979, under the KMT's provocations, resulting in massive arrests and witch-hunts. The mother and two daughters of a leading activist were brutally killed on February 28, 1980, the anniversary of the 1947 massacre. Another activist died during interrogation in 1981. In the next few years, relatives or even defence lawyers of the jailed or killed activists were fielded as election candidates, scoring good results. Many in the opposition converged to form the DPP in September 1986, despite it being illegal to do so. Martial law was lifted in 1987. Lee was "elected" as president as well as KMT chair in 1990, only after considerable manoeuvring. The party was deeply and openly divided into the "mainstream" faction led by Lee, consisting mainly of members of Taiwanese origin, and the "non-mainstream" faction, made up of the old guard from China. The old guard took outrageous steps to consolidate their privileges, prompting 60 students to initiate a protest in March 1990 in the centre of Taipei. They drew more than 20,000 supporters over the next two days. Lee promised to call a National Affairs Conference (NAC) to discuss democratic reforms. Lee's appointment of General Hau Pei-Ts'un as premier, in May 1990, violating a constitutional prohibition on military personnel in civilian posts, triggered more street actions. In December 1991, the DPP took the daring move of officially adopting a pro-independence stance. This was followed by mobilisations, particularly for UN recognition of Taiwan. In March 1992, the KMT suddenly announced its support for direct presidential elections, a U-turn from its previous position. Political differentiation started to take place in the democracy movement, with the emergence of a Marxist-oriented current mobilised independently around workers' issues. There has been a radicalisation in Taiwanese campuses in recent years, and increasing popularity of Marxist writings — especially those of Leon Trotsky on the Russian Revolution and its degeneration, which were banned until a few years ago. Activists there say they are trying to understand the degeneration in China through the Russian experience.