Taiwanese Democracy's Clashing Colors


By Lisa Bergson "They have to hide their affiliation," Dr. Wen-Bin Yan, our Chinese-born vice-president of research tells me a couple of days before the Taiwanese election. We're in Asia for the Semicon China trade show, with a trip to Taiwan scheduled thereafter. Over a dinner in Shanghai hosted by our Taiwanese sales rep, Wen-Bin made the mistake of asking one of the guests how she planned to vote. She placed a finger to her lips.

"They fight," Wen-Bin explains, saying the airlines even try to place the Greens, who support the reelection of President Chen Shui-bian, on separate flights from the Kuomintang Blues, backing his rival, Lien Chan. It's a highly fraught contest, with Chen moving toward Taiwanese independence, to the wrath of Beijing and the consternation of the U.S. Lien is more conciliatory towards China, thus enjoying enjoys support from Taiwanese business people and many of Chinese descent.

No. 1 WITH A BULLET. While divided by politics, the two countries are tightly bound, with over a million Taiwanese students and business people living in the mainland and billions of dollars in Taiwanese investment pouring in. In addition to strong ethnic ties, more and more Taiwanese are attracted to China for its cheap labor and materials, economic incentives, and huge potential market. To them, Chen's policies threaten to wreak havoc. On the last day of the show, the Taiwanese exit en masse to vote, and the halls grow quiet. (It's ironic that in a country whose democracy is unrecognized by most of the world, voter turnout is huge.)

It looks good for Lien until Chen and his vice-president suffer mysterious gunshot wounds while campaigning just a day before the election. News junkie that I am, I follow it all from China on CNN. Wen-Bin is privy to the rumor mill. "Some people say the shooting may have been staged," he tells me in a taxi on the day of the election. We're still in the mainland, on our way to the French Concession for lunch.

"He'd have to be pathological to take that kind of risk," I retort.

"Maybe not him, maybe his party," he conjectures. "In Taiwan, politics is very dirty." There must be pol-sci studies about these early-stage democracies -- Taiwan's has only been around for a decade. I wonder if they all need the U.N. to oversee their elections. (Then again, do we?)

STREETS OF FURY. Wen-Bin and I sightsee that afternoon, learning upon our return to the hotel that the election is neck-and-neck. After a tasty hot-pot dinner, we head back to our respective rooms to check the results. While Chen declares victory, my TV keeps blacking out. Such overt censorship is a first for me -- a grim reminder that the China I roam so freely is far from an open society.

In Taipei, protesters fill the streets. "Should we go?" I phone Wen-Bin down the hall.

"Yes," he replies, as I knew he would. When we arrive in Taiwan, our biggest concern is whether we have enough local or U.S. money for the taxi (greenbacks are welcome everywhere). Outside the Presidential Palace, the Blues camp out, demanding a recount, but the rest of the city is quiet. From the Grand Hyatt, I call my old friend, journalist Dave Lindorff, who's in Taiwan on a Fulbright. He's busy filing a story on the election, which he dubs a "cross between Florida and Madrid."

Monday morning, our breakfast guest, a high-level executive, is late and grumbling. "I live near the Palace, and the protesters and police are everywhere. In your country, Gore was more graceful in accepting defeat."

"Gore took it to the Supreme Court," I remind him.

As we make our calls over the next two days, the Blues sing the blues. "Chen suffered a minor injury, but to us this is a major wound," cries one business associate, burying his head in his arms. Bright blue shirts abound, while the Greens tend toward more subtle shades of olive and mint.

PEACE IN THEIR TIME? The consensus seems to be that Chen may have been shot by gamblers, who bet heavily on the outcome. But, his narrow victory -- some 30,000 votes, a scant 0.2% of the total -- fuels speculation. Indeed, after the assassination attempt, members of the police and military were placed on high alert and thus, in many cases, unable to vote. Those uncast votes alone could have had an impact on the election.

Wednesday morning, I have one last appointment before heading home. While Chen has agreed to a recount -- a concession that became moot when the parliament later failed to endorse the proposal and the Election Commission officially certified the result, prompting another round of riotous protests.

Meanwhile, Lien supporters remain loyal. "I am for the Blues," E., a young sales engineer, states with pride, adding: "I want peace." I look at him and say nothing. It saddens me to see young people who place so little value on freedom. E. misinterprets my response. "We talk too much about politics. I am sorry. Let's talk business."

"That's O.K.," I reassure him. "I've heard about the election all week. It's good to express your views. Otherwise they just get pent up inside and create resentment." After all, that's what democracy is all about.

(Editor's note: When first published, this column relayed speculation that the number of active-duty police and military personnel unable to vote may have run as high as 200,000. Taiwanese officials have since said the correct figure was 13,000.) Lisa Bergson is President and CEO of both MEECO and Tiger Optics. Before joining MEECO in 1983, Lisa Bergson worked as a business journalist at BusinessWeek and freelanced for many business publications. You can visit her companies' Web sites at www.meeco.com and www.tigeroptics.com, or contact her at lbergson@meeco.com


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