China Tensions Could Sway Vote in Taiwan
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Violent unrest in Tibet has created shock waves in another volatile region on China’s periphery, shaking up the presidential election in Taiwan and sapping support for the candidate Beijing had hoped would win handily.
The suppression of Tibet protests by Chinese security forces, as well as missteps by the Nationalist Party, which Beijing favors, have nearly erased what had seemed like an insuperable lead for Ma Ying-jeou, the Harvard-educated lawyer who has been the front-runner in the race.
Concern that China’s crackdown could herald a tougher line on outlying regions that Beijing claims as sovereign territory, including Taiwan, has become the most contested campaign issue ahead of Saturday’s election.
On Thursday, China acknowledged for the first time that security forces had opened fire on Tibetan protesters in Sichuan Province, while also saying that protests had spread to several areas of China where ethnic Tibetans live.
Even if Mr. Ma wins, the election may now give him a weaker mandate for his goal of pursuing closer economic ties and reduced diplomatic tensions with China.
A loss by Mr. Ma, which campaign analysts say is unlikely but now possible, would be a major setback for China’s leaders. They have cultivated the Nationalists in recent years to undermine Taiwan’s current pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, and reduce the chances that his Democratic Progressive Party will hold the presidency after Mr. Chen’s mandatory retirement.
The stirring up of the election on Taiwan, which Beijing has long considered its top national security priority, is a potentially heavy price for the Tibetan unrest and the ensuing police action. Beijing also faces a stronger international outcry over its human rights record and scattered calls to boycott the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games, which China hopes will showcase the country’s rapid development.
Both the Nationalists and the Democratic Progressive Party promise to reduce tensions between Taiwan and China. But China has been wary of the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, who inherits a volatile coalition that includes many native Taiwanese who favor outright independence from China.
Mr. Hsieh and his party, with help from Mr. Chen’s ministers, have moved swiftly to turn Tibet into a central campaign issue. They contend that Tibet’s fate is a warning of Taiwan’s future if it does not stand up to Beijing.
“What has happened in Tibet in the past three decades, and what is going on now, is a warning to us,” said Shieh Jhy-wey, the minister of information and a Democratic Progressive Party member who takes a hard line toward Beijing. “We don’t want to have the same fate as Tibet.”
Mr. Hsieh abruptly turned a campaign rally in Taipei on Wednesday night into a candlelight vigil for Tibetans who have been killed, injured or detained during the Chinese crackdown. Party activists unfurled a huge Tibetan flag, and Tibetan students sang a Tibetan anthem.
A huge television screen at the rally showed a documentary on Tibetan history provided by the Taiwan office of the Dalai Lama, as well as a short video of Chinese soldiers mistreating Tibetans. Mr. Hsieh’s running mate, Su Tseng-chang, has scheduled a “Support Tibet” rally for Friday morning while Mr. Hsieh has scheduled a “Protect Taiwan Democracy” election-eve rally in Taipei for Friday.
With politicians from both parties concluding that the Tibet issue is hurting the Nationalists, Mr. Ma has focused on damage control. To the surprise of many even in his own party, he warned this week that Taiwan might boycott the Olympics if the Chinese crackdown in Tibet turned more draconian and if conditions there deteriorated further.
Known for his gentlemanly style, his reluctance to engage in personal attacks on political adversaries and his long-held desire for more cordial relations with the mainland, Mr. Ma has also rushed to distance himself from Beijing by using uncharacteristically harsh language.
When Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China said Tuesday that Taiwan’s future should be decided by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, and not just by Taiwan residents, Mr. Ma condemned what he described as a “ruthless, irrational, arrogant, foolish and self-righteous comment.” Mr. Hsieh has rejected any boycott of the Olympics.
Opinion polls showed Mr. Ma with a lead of up to 20 percentage points last week; Taiwan’s election laws do not allow the release of polls during the final 10 days before voting.
But surveys by both parties show that more than half of that lead has evaporated. Mr. Ma is now ahead by a more slender margin because of Tibet and because of an embarrassing incident in which four Nationalist lawmakers were caught roaming through the Democratic Progressive Party’s headquarters, politicians and political analysts said.
The closer race has reinvigorated the Democratic Progressive Party, which had been deeply gloomy after badly losing a January vote for the legislature. “We have narrowed the gap significantly since January and I believe the final outcome will be very close,” said Hsiao Bi-khim, the international affairs director of Mr. Hsieh’s campaign.
Su Chi, a Nationalist lawmaker and deputy campaign manager for Mr. Ma, said that Mr. Ma’s lead had narrowed in the last few days, but added that this was to be expected.
Many Democratic Progressive Party supporters did not vote in the legislative elections because they were disillusioned with corruption cases involving the current government, but they are now becoming more active as Mr. Hsieh has campaigned aggressively, Mr. Su said, adding that he still thought Mr. Ma would win.
Government ministers have helped Mr. Hsieh by repeatedly drawing attention to the difficulties in Tibet.
At a news conference on Thursday, Chen Ming-tong, the chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the ministry responsible for relations with the mainland, called for the international community to put more pressure on China to begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibet’s government in exile.
Mr. Hsieh received an influential endorsement on Thursday. Lee Teng-hui, a former Nationalist president of Taiwan who now favors much greater political independence from the mainland, said he would vote for Mr. Hsieh.
The Nationalists and two affiliated minor parties captured three-quarters of the seats in the legislature in January’s elections, in a crushing defeat for the Democratic Progressive Party. The Nationalists’ capitalized on voters’ concerns about stagnant household incomes and paralysis in contacts with the fast-growing mainland economy — two potent issues that could still produce a victory for Mr. Ma on Saturday.
But the incident at Mr. Hsieh’s offices last week helped his party warn voters against giving too much power to the opposition. Four Nationalist lawmakers roamed through Mr. Hsieh’s offices in an attempt to document whether the building lease complied with election laws.
Mr. Hsieh’s aides trapped the four in an elevator, accused them of trespassing and called the police. A crowd of Democratic Progressive Party supporters formed and smashed the windshield of one of the police cars that rescued the four; Mr. Ma has apologized repeatedly since then.
Mr. Hsieh has staked out a more moderate position toward Beijing than Mr. Chen has. Mr. Ma has taken positions similar to Mr. Hsieh’s on economic issues, and he said that he would not seek political reunification with the mainland, still the goal of many Nationalists.
Many of the two men’s proposals, like direct flights to China, would require talks with Beijing, and are more likely to happen if Mr. Ma is elected because mainland officials have been reluctant to have formal contacts with the Democratic Progressive Party.