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Taiwan’s President Leads the Way to ... Where?

March 16, 1996

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) _ First come dragon dancers and a Chinese orchestra of horns and cymbals. Then President Lee Teng-hui takes the stage at a campaign rally as 1,500 of the party faithful surge to their feet cheering.

Grinning and waving a baseball cap, the lantern-jawed Nationalist Party veteran who has recast himself as a populist outsider launches into a speech thumbing his nose at China and boasting of making Taiwan a democracy.

China is waging war games near Taiwan, but that doesn’t scare him, he says. ``We’re not shrimps with weak feet.″ There will be ``no surrender.″ China’s threats are just ``futile nagging.″

But after his 15-minute speech, it’s still hard to say where Lee wants to take Taiwan. In one breath, he sounds like a China-baiting Taiwanese nationalist; in the next, he reaffirms his commitment to reunite with the mainland that his predecessors fled after losing a civil war in 1949.

Perhaps he’s a bit of both. Campaigning for a new term in the island’s first direct presidential elections, on Saturday, Lee is trying to draw voters from both camps: those who support reunification and those who seek an independent Taiwan.

He is very different from his forerunners, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who led the 1949 exodus from China, and Chiang’s son and successor, Chiang Ching-kuo.

They were mainlanders who imposed Mandarin, China’s standard dialect, on Taiwan. Lee is native-born Taiwanese, has never lived in China, and delights his audiences by addressing them in Taiwanese dialect.

But then he lists the strides he has made toward easing trade with and travel to China _ a far cry from his predecessors’ ban on any contact with what they called the Communist ``bandit regime.″

China accuses Lee of renouncing their shared goal of reunification in preparation for declaring independence, and has launched war games and missile tests near Taiwan to frighten voters away from him.

Are China’s suspicions of Lee valid?

``He gives a very confusing impression,″ said Chang Ling-chen, a political science professor at National Taiwan University.

``About 30 percent of the people believe President Lee wants to be united one day with the mainland. About 30 percent of the people think he will lead us to be independent. The rest just don’t know.″

Lee, 73, has rapidly transformed Taiwan’s repressive Chiang-era government. Chiang Ching-kuo began the reforms by ending his father’s ban on opposition politics. When Chiang died in 1988, the task fell to Lee.

Appointed president by an electoral college, Lee ushered into retirement the ``10,000-Year Parliament″ of elderly legislators elected on the mainland in the 1940s and frozen in office pending the dreamed-of return to the mainland.

The move gave younger Taiwanese their first chance to elect a government, but made nationalists uneasy by dissolving an important symbolic tie with China.

Far worse, in China’s eyes, is his campaign to get invited abroad, breaking Beijing’s diplomatic embargo and raising Taiwan’s diplomatic profile.

Such behavior hasn’t made him popular with conservatives in Taiwan. Some 200 military veterans staged an angry protest Friday outside his election headquarters in the southern city of Kaohsiung, accusing Lee of having provoked Beijing and demanding that he resign.

Two of his challengers in Saturday’s election are senior Nationalist Party officials who quit to oppose him independently.

Lee is the consummate insider, a former Nationalist mayor of Taipei and Chiang’s vice president. But the son of a farming family cultivates an image of a man of the people, trading his business suit for sneakers and a windbreaker during the campaign. At rallies, he plunges into the crowd to shake hands.

By adopting policies that have allowed a Taiwanese identity to surface over the imported mainland culture, Lee has led many Taiwanese to believe he is secretly for independence.

``I’m Taiwanese, so I hope so,″ said K.S. Zhang, an auto plant manager, who attended a speech by Lee before the Taipei County Chamber of Commerce. ``Taiwan is Taiwan. China is China. It’s naturally a separate country.″

``He doesn’t want to create independence, but only to acknowledge the facts of two separate governments.″ counters Bernard Joei, a newspaper columnist and former diplomat

Joei believes Lee genuinely wants reunification _ but not until Taiwan can negotiate it from a position of strength.

One reason Lee sometimes sounds pro-independence could be to undermine support from his main opponent, who openly espouses breaking with China.

Political commentators say at least some of Lee’s democratic reforms can be traced to his exposure to American politics while he was at Cornell University, where he received a Ph.D. in agricultural economics in 1968.

It was Lee’s trip to Cornell eight months ago that ignited the current tensions and led to China’s missile tests and war games. Traveling on a visa granted by the Clinton administration under congressional pressure, Lee was ostensibly on a private trip for a class reunion, but Taiwanese media played it up as a diplomatic triumph.

``The situation of the Taiwan Straits is totally the result of Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the United States and his attempt to create two Chinas, and his activities aimed at splitting the motherland,″ China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Chen Jian, said recently.

Lee says he is trying to rebuild the international standing Taiwan lost in the 1970s when mainland China opened up to the West. Many nations, including the United States, switched recognition of China from the government in Taipei to the government in Beijing. Beijing also took Taipei’s place in the United Nations, which has one seat for China.

``If I didn’t visit, how could we have breakthroughs in ties with them?″ Lee said at a campaign rally Thursday. ``Now we have strength. We plant our feet on Taiwan and build a place the world will look up to.″

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