- The Washington Times - Monday, March 13, 2000

TAIPEI, Taiwan Television viewers are being deluged in the final week before Taiwan's hotly contested presidential election with a campaign ad designed to play on the fears of a Chinese military attack.

In it, presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party is seen hoarsely shouting, "Long live Taiwanese independence." In the next scene, Taiwanese civilians wave goodbye to their families and march off to war with China.

The ad, which follows a series of threats from China of military attack if Taiwan should seek independence, is financed not by friends of Beijing but by an anonymous supporter of the ruling Nationalist Party.

It bears out the view of analysts that the Chinese threats have become the most important issue in the election, even if it is not clear how voters will react.

"We talk about the threat of war all the time," said homemaker Chen Tsai-o, who like one-quarter of Taiwan's 15 million voters, remains undecided. "If I vote the wrong way, it could mean war."

In fact, the streets of this thriving city of 3 million may be a bit calmer than they were four years ago, when Taiwan became the first ethnic Chinese nation ever to democratically choose its own leader. That time, China fired ballistic missiles near both ends of the Taiwan Strait and the United States dispatched an aircraft carrier battle group as a sign of support for Taiwan.

This year, China is using words instead of missiles. And once again, the comfort of America's military blunts some of the fear.

"We are afraid of war, but we don't think this time China will attack us. No American [presidential] candidate would let that happen," said Ellie Yang, 30, a Taipei-based writer.

China began its campaign of intimidation last month with the release of a "white paper" in which, for the first time, Beijing threatened a military attack on Taiwan if it refused to open talks on reunification.

A barrage of similar warnings followed, alerting Taiwan's 22 million people to the danger of pursuing independence.

The man with the most to lose from the threats is Mr. Chen, who is locked in a three-way race that is so close that only the candidates and gamblers dare to call a winner.

The 48-year-old former mayor of Taipei is expending much of his energy trying to reassure nervous voters with pledges to be "a peacemaker, not a troublemaker."

He has disavowed his party's longtime goal of independence from Beijing and instead is offering to meet President Jiang Zemin and to vastly expand direct trade and communications with China. At present almost all trade and travel must be routed through Hong Kong or a third nation.

Mr. Chen's two rivals are far more wary about the theoretorical pitfalls associated with the "one-China" policy, a quagmire of nuances and ambiguities that is officially espoused but interpreted differently by both sides.

Vice President Lien Chan, 63, represents the Nationalists, who have ruled since fleeing to Taiwan in 1949 from the victorious Communist armies of Mao Tse-tung.

The third candidate, James Soong, 57, defected last year from the Nationalist Party to run as an independent candidate and is the most conciliatory toward China.

Mr. Lien and Mr. Chen yesterday kicked off the final week of the campaign with rallies that brought hundreds of thousands of banner-waving supporters onto the streets of the southern port city of Kaohsiung.

"This vote is not like the one four years ago. This time everyone is worried because if they choose the wrong candidate, … bad things will happen to the country," said outgoing President Lee Teng-hui at the rally for his vice president, Mr. Lien.

If Mr. Chen's Achilles' heel proves to be his past taunts at Beijing, his opponents are both haunted by reports of corruption in the Nationalist Party and, in Mr. Soong's case, outright embezzlement of party funds.

Despite the fear of war, most Taiwan voters cringe at the thought of being reunited with the Chinese mainland. They earn four times as much as their mainland compatriots on average but recoil at the thought of 1.2 billion Chinese seeking a share of Taiwan's wealth.

"If the people in one province on the mainland came over here, the island would sink," said Lai Chi-len, 24, a graduate student in electrical engineering who said he would probably vote for Mr. Chen because he felt safe from China.

Despite the periodic flare-ups with China, Taiwan investors have pumped more than $30 million into factories and other businesses on the mainland. That proves persuasive to voters who have a stake in what has been a profitable, if low-key, form of engagement.

"We can't survive without China," said Chang Hui-tong, 39, who frequently visits Shanghai to oversee a factory that makes leather belts. His partner is a South Korean investor.

Mr. Chang has not decided how he will vote. "A candidate will say something, and I find myself thinking maybe I should or shouldn't vote for him," he said.

A former tennis coach, Mr. Chang spoke in the basement of a Taipei town house that doubles as a clubroom for coaches of children's sports. Trophies and pennants from baseball league championships line the wall.

With a high school baseball game on television, Chung King-chung, 46, who teaches at a nearby elementary school and coaches its baseball team, said he plans to vote for Mr. Chen, the DPP candidate.

"The U.S. is the world police and also the leader of democratic countries. Beijing will not resort to force carelessly," he said.

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