Chen's victory puts Beijing's one China plan into disarray
With his victory in Taiwan's presidential election on Saturday, Mr Chen Shui-bian has shaken up politics in the region like an earthquake and made a nightmare come true for the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.
The son of a poor sugar cane labourer in southern Taiwan, Mr Chen has always supported outright independence for the island of 22 million people. He entered politics as a lawyer working with dissidents in a pro-democracy movement which gave birth to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and was imprisoned for eight months for publishing an article which accused a Nationalist professor of faking his credentials.
He is known for his devotion to his wife, who was paralysed in 1985 when run over three times by a truck in what appeared to be a politically-motivated murder attempt.
Mr Chen rose to prominence through local government, and from 1994 to 1998 was Taipei's first non-Nationalist mayor, earning a reputation as a fighter against corruption and gangster-related politics.
His success on Saturday topples the 89-year-old political dynasty of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which ruled first mainland China and then, after the 1949 communist victory, Taiwan.
The Nationalists developed the island as a separate political entity, but kept Beijing at bay by paying lip service to the idea of an eventual one China. Unity talks, however, never got off the ground. In recent years Beijing began to get worried that prospects of recovering its "lost province" through negotiations were slipping away, especially when outgoing President Lee Teng-hui suddenly shifted the ground last year by declaring that Taiwan was in a de facto "state-to-state" relationship with China.
The Chinese leadership never trusted the Japanese-educated Mr Lee, and suspects that as the 2000 presidential election loomed, his private zeal for Taiwanese independence transcended loyalty to his own party. Beijing believes he deliberately chose a weak Nationalist candidate, the colourless and indecisive Mr Lien Chan - who was trounced on Saturday - to bolster Mr Chen's prospect of success.
This is known in Taiwan as the qi-bao tactic, that of sacrificing one's preferred candidate to secretly support another. Whether this was the case or not, democracy in Taiwan, introduced into presidential elections just five years ago, has produced a leader whose policies bring him into direct conflict with a one-party super-state whose national goal is the recovery of the island, by negotiation or by force.
Mr Chen (49) is particularly popular in Taiwan among its native population, which vastly outnumbers the descendants of the defeated nationalists who fled to the island in 1949.
They supported the pro-independence candidate mainly to achieve a clean break from the ailing and corrupt ruling party, but by giving him victory at the ballot box have redefined the modern generation in Taiwan and put a greater distance between modern Taiwan and communist China.
At the start of the presidential election campaign a month ago, Beijing threatened war if Taiwan drifted any further towards independence or delayed unity talks. The message was clear: the candidates should tone down their pro-independence rhetoric and the voters should not vote for Mr Chen.
It backfired in the sense that Taiwan's voters felt that this was bullying interference in their election and chose Mr Chen over two candidates with softer records on unity, on the grounds that to succumb this time would mean further concessions next time.
Indeed the Nationalist candidate was clearly punished for trying to capitalise on China's warning by raising the prospect of invasion if the pro-independence candidate won. The best face that China can put on the result is that its warnings did force Mr Chen to reposition himself as someone who would not take Taiwan any further down the road to independence.
Polls show that the majority of Taiwanese prefer the status quo in relations with China. Thus on February 23rd, in his first interview after Beijing began its verbal bombardment with its White Paper on Taiwan, the 49-year-old former mayor of Taipei was ready with a well-rehearsed response to reassure the international community and voters who might be apprehensive about instability or invasion.
He would not push any independence issues after the election nor would he seek to put into the constitution the state-to-state theory, he told a small group of correspondents including The Irish Times who were invited to his Taipei office.
Moreover, he promised, the DPP "would not hold a referendum to decide the national status, and we would not declare independence if China does not invade us".
He would not seek to declare independence because "Taiwan is already an independent country."
He said he would offer to visit mainland China, and invite China's President Jiang Zemin to come to Taiwan. He would encourage interaction and dialogue.
"I would prove to Beijing, Washington and even Tokyo that I am someone whom all these places can negotiate with, and I am someone who can carry out constructive dialogue, that I am someone of flexibility and responsibility. We want co-operation and not war. We want competition and not struggling against each other."