Taiwan's new leader may be "too nice" to keep power





The death last week of President Chiang Ching-kuo, which brought Nationalist China's Chiang dynasty to an end after more than 60 years, leaves a political vacuum and raises serious doubts about Taiwan's future.

The late president of the Republic of China on Taiwan, who had succeeded his father, Chiang Kai-shek, failed to find an acceptable successor before his death. The question now is whether the new president, Lee Teng-hui, can hold onto power in the collective leader ship that is expected to rule the island and whether the reform movement begun by the younger Chiang will be carried on.

Lee, the son of a rice and tea farmer, smoothly assumed the presidency in accordance with the constitution hours after the death of Chiang. But many observers predict that he will rule in name only. Lee, although handpicked by Chiang, is a native Taiwanese in a government dominated by mainlanders, and he lacks ties with the party, military and security establishments.

Although the island is 85 percent Taiwanese, mainlanders have monopolized political power since retreating here after their defeat by the Chinese Communists in 1949.

"We think he is a good and capable man," said Frank Hsieh, a member of the Central Committee of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. "But what we don't know is whether or not he can get the real power to do the things he wants to do."

Collective Leadership

It is widely believed that until a strong national leader emerges, the island will actually be ruled by a collective leadership made up of, among others, President Lee, Premier Yu Kuo-hwa, Kuomintang Secretary-General Lee Huan and General Hau Pei-tsun, chief of the general staff. However, none of these now appears to have sufficient power to take complete control.

Some say that Lee, who received a doctorate in agricultural economics from Cornell University, is not cut out for the political infighting that is expected to take place as different power groups compete for control of the government.

"He's not the kind of person to grab power," said Lu Ya-li, professor of political science at National Taiwan University. "He's too retiring and too nice. While he probably won't be an entirely symbolic president, he will not be a very powerful figure either."

There is serious concern here over how the collective leadership, made up of moderates and conservatives within the party, will handle the far-reaching political and economic reforms begun by Chiang.

When he became president in 1978, Chiang began a program of "Taiwanization," bringing native Taiwanese into high government positions and transforming the Kuomintang from a party of mainlanders to one that is now more than 70 percent Taiwanese. Chiang realized that the change was necessary if the party was to retain its dominant position in a changing political environment.

More recently, in September 1986, he allowed an opposition party to be formed for the first time. Chiang also is credited with the lifting of martial law in July of last year and the lifting of a newspaper ban earlier this month.

Travel to Mainland

Most notable was the decision in October to allow local residents, separated from their relatives for almost 40 years, to visit mainland China.

This move, which could have been carried out only with the support of the president, signaled a softening in the government's long-standing policy of "three nos" - no compromise, no contacts and no negotiations with the mainland Chinese. Without a proponent of Chiang's stature, it is unlikely that this process will proceed much further in the near future.

At the time of Chiang's death, the ruling party also was working out the details of a face-saving plan to hold elections for Taiwan's congressional bodies.

In order to retain its claim as the sole government of China, the Kuomintang has refused to hold elections for these seats. Of the 316 seats in parliament, an estimated two-thirds are held by legislators in their late 70s and 80s, elected on mainland China in 1948.

Until recently, the government has ruled out elections on the ground that it cannot allow them until the mainland is retaken.

Despite the late president's unchallenged authority, conservative elements in the party and the military are believed to have resisted and opposed many of the changes he advocated.

Military's Role

Unless there is serious unrest, however, it does not seem likely that the military will take an active role. The military lacks popular and economic support and experience in running the government.

Furthermore, the United States, Taiwan's most important ally, would frown on any type of military interference.

However, the military still has great influence in government decision-making and cannot be ruled out as a force on the island.

Members of the Democratic Progressive Party, relatively safe while Chiang was alive, are aware of the delicate situation they are in and have been careful to avoid any confrontation with the government since the president's death.

Respect for Lee

Despite the strong odds against Lee emerging as an assertive and strong leader of the country, he is widely respected - even among the opposition - as an intelligent man of great character, and there is hope in many quarters that he will somehow evolve into a powerful president.

"Since there are many conservatives in the old power structure, Lee may not be able to do much now," said Chang Chung-tung, professor of history at National Taiwan University, "but gradually the old guard will disappear, and once younger people come up, Lee will have more support."

Attention is now focusing on the vacant seat of party chairman, formerly held by Chiang. It is believed that whoever holds the chairmanship will be in a good position to seize power.


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney