Doubts about clout of new leader cloud future of Taiwan





For more than 60 years, Nationalist China has been ruled by the indisputable authority of two men, Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. With the death of the son Wednesday, the Chiang dynasty begun by the father on the mainland more than 60 years ago has come to an end.

The president’s death came as no surprise. Although a government spokesman declared him in good health less than two weeks ago, Chiang had suffered from diabetes and a heart condition for years and had been confined to a wheelchair since late last year.

Yet, he failed to find an acceptable successor before his death, leaving a political vacuum at the top and serious doubts about the island’s future.

The question on everybody’s mind now is whether Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s new president, can hold onto power in the collective leadership that is expected to rule the island and whether the reform movement begun by the late president will continue.

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

Although the island is 85 percent Taiwanese, mainlanders have monopolized the government since retreating here after being defeated at the hands of the Chinese communists in 1949.

Collective rule expected

“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.”

It is widely believed that until a strong national leader emerges, the island will be ruled by a collective leadership made up of Kuomintang party leaders. Some say that Lee, who received his doctorate degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University, is not cut out for the political infighting that is expected to take place as different power groups vie 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.”

Serious concern has been expressed over how the collective leadership, made up of moderates and conservatives within the party and the military, will handle the series of far-reaching political and economic reforms initiated by Chiang Ching-kuo.

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 made up of more than 70 percent Taiwanese.

In September 1986 he allowed an opposition party to be formed for the first time on the island. He is also credited with lifting martial law in July and lifting a newspaper ban earlier this month.

Most notable was the decision late last year to allow residents to visit relatives on mainland China. The move signaled a softening in government’s longstanding “Three Noes” policy, namely, no compromise, no contacts and no negotiations with the Chinese Communists. Without someone of Chiang’s stature, it is unlikely that this process will proceed much further for the time being.

Planned for elections

At the time of his death, the ruling party was also working out the details of a face-saving plan to hold elections for members of Taiwan’s congressional bodies. In order to retain its claim as the sole government of China, the party has refused to hold elections for these seats. Up until recently the government has ruled out elections on the ground that it cannot do so 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. However, analysts in Taipei believe that while a slowdown may occur initially while the players size up the situation, the trend toward reform is approved by the people, and it would be difficult to turn back now.

Without serious unrest, it does not seem likely the military will take an active role. The military lacks mass and economic support and experience in running the government.

Some fear the conservatives might look for some excuse to crack down on the opposition in order to expand their influence. Opposition members are aware of their delicate situation and have been careful to avoid any confrontation with the government immediately following the late president’s death.

However, they have formed a committee to study the government’s political, social and economic policies in the coming weeks and have vowed to fight any move to reverse the democratization process.

Despite the strong odds against Lee emerging as an assertive and strong leader of the country, he is widely respected as an intelligent man of great character, and the hope in many quarters is 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.”


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney