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No one blinked when longtime Kuomintang politician James Soong (Sung Chu-yu) announced last week that he would defy party elders and run independently for president of the Republic of China on Taiwan in the March 2000 elections.

Soong, 57, made his announcement Friday July 16, but the news flow was clogged with Beijing’s angry response to Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui’s earlier declaration that China must deal with Taiwan on a state-to-state basis and in the United States with the search for the missing plane of John F. Kennedy Jr., son of the former U.S. president.

In the first place, the touch-all-bases move by Lee was brilliant in its conception, execution and timing. Lee’s statement not only immobilized the domestic opposition and put Beijing and the U.S. in the position of being made to think for a change, but also solidified his place in history. The only question is whether he has overextended himself since it is his disciple (Lien Chan) who is the candidate, not Lee himself.

Among East Asia specialists, Lee’s move was a surprise only by its timing.

The move by Soong also had been expected but was hyped in importance by its timing in a chain of events that saw U.S. President Bill Clinton phoning Chinese President Jiang Zemin to reiterate Washington’s stand on the “one China” policy and hearing Jiang’s insistence that China had not ruled out the use of force to settle the Taiwan issue.

The overall winner will be democracy. The election demonstration will be, in effect, what many in Taiwan have been seeking all along: a referendum. The winner of a three-way race, if it goes forward, will give a clear indication of what Taiwan people want.

It is the height of irony that the U.S., after long encouraging Taiwan to be democratic, seems to favor the mainland based on outdated arguments.

The Most Enlightened Political Thinking Award goes to Lee, whose overture will require both Beijing and Washington to do some creative brain work for a change.

Soong, despite brusque treatment by Lee, finds his popularity is undiminished. Opinion polls have shown Soong well ahead of the likely KMT candidate, Vice President Lien Chan, 64, and the top opposition, challenger, former Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian, 49, of the Democratic Progressive Party, which has advocated independence.

A recent poll conducted by the China Times showed Soong had 36 percent of the public’s support, against Chen’s 22 percent and Lien’s 15 percent.

The poll of 1,020 Taiwanese, conducted July 9, had a margin of error of 3.1 percent.

Soong said he sought his own candidacy because the KMT had failed to come up with what he considered a fair way to nominate the party’s candidate to replace Lee. Chen says Soong will falter on issues because he can’t appeal to both the pro-China and proindependence voters.

Lien represents Taiwan and KMT “old money” and as Lee’s preferred successor is expected to win the nomination at a party congress on Aug. 21. Soong’s defection makes Lien’s candidacy at the top of the KMT ticket a virtual certainty. But is the KMT apparatus and Lee’s backing enough to pull Lien through?

Lien is regarded as aloof and colorless. In 1996, in an effort to brighten his image as vice presidential candidate on the Lee ticket, KMT publicists came up with the idea of announcing that Lien left the office each day at noon to have lunch with his aging mother. But the ploy backfired when Taipei’s aggressive press proved that Lien’s lunchtime motorcade caused disruption and resulted in what became to be known as “the Lien traffic jam.”

The late President Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, ended martial law and set Taiwan on a major reform movement toward democracy. The reforms on a grand scale earned him regard as a “Great Helmsman” of Chinese society, along with Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Jiang has not yet achieved that status among astute Sinologists.

Part of his talent was in choosing leaders for the future. Chiang personally tapped a group of young people all with Western and Japanese educations, to become the core of Taiwan’s and KMT’s leadership after he was gone. The result has been his enduring legacy. His choice of Taiwan-born Lee Teng-hui (Kyoto, Cornell) as his successor was a master stroke.

Others in the group were Lien Chan (Chicago), Soong (University of California at Berkeley and Georgetown), former Foreign Minister and Speaker of the National Assembly Fredrick Chien (Yale), Director of Institute of International Relations and former Government Information Director General Shaw Yu-ming (Tufts, Chicago), Foreign Minister Jason Hu (Oxford), Secretary General of National Security Council Ding Mou-shih (Paris), former Mainland Affairs Council head Chang King-yuh (Columbia), Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (Harvard), KMT Secretary General John Chiang (Georgetown), Vincent Siew (New York University), premier and a likely vice presidential candidate on the Lien ticket and Minister of State Shirley W.Y. Kuo (Kobe).

Soong was director general of the Government Office when he led me into an interview with Chiang up a red-carpeted stairway in the grand Japanese-built presidential office building in late 1982.

The interpreter for that session was Ma Ying-jeou, just returned from Harvard to be a presidential secretary. Now 49, Ma has been minister of justice and is currently mayor of Taipei. Some believe a Soong-Ma ticket in 2000 would be unbeatable, though it is improbable.

Chiang in that 1982 interview sketched plans for reform that began to be realized with the lifting of martial law in 1987 and setting Taiwan on a democratic course. The rest is history, including the 1996 election of Lee, the first freely elected Chinese president.

Mainland-born Soong, ever the loyal KMT soldier, marched up the party stairs to secretary general and then election as provincial governor. But that position was dissolved under a Lee-engineered constitutional amendment.

The independent views articulated by Soong have rubbed Lee the wrong way and the two former staunch KMT colleagues now have become rivals as Soong refuses to run as Lien’s vice president.

It was Soong who convinced Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soong May-ling, but no relation) to give up her objection to Taiwan-born Lee running for president for a full term after succeeding the late president. The aging KMT matriarch still wielded power among old-line KMT members.

With all angles considered, many Western analysts are turning to Soong as the best hope to lead Taiwan to an eventual accommodation with China and to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait. He is extremely popular among American businessmen, scholars and journalists.

In Japan, Soong does not have Lee’s Kyoto alumni contacts but has many ties among the younger political and business generation.

But just as Soong’s announcement of candidacy was no surprise to Taiwan-watchers, Lee’s announcement of a “two states” proposal was expected and seen as the realization of a goal in Lee’s thinking to dislodge Taiwan from China.

Lee recently has admitted that that 1991 and 1992 constitutional amendments were aimed at the eventual process of giving Taiwan separate state status.

In 1993, Lee, a Christian, told the late Japanese author Ryotaro Shiba that he saw himself as the Moses of Taiwan. This meant the splitting of Taiwan from China, since Moses took his Jewish people away from Egypt.

Another rationale given for Lee’s timing, which has projected Soong into a leading position, is reaction to U.S. pressure. There is the uncertainty of a new U.S. president being elected in 2000 but some academics say the U.S. role has moved from nonintervention to advocating a 50-year period where Taiwan would not declare independence and Beijing would not use force.

The idea is not new. Chairman Mao told then U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 “we can wait 100 years to recover Taiwan.” The urgency of the question today is an invention of a politically conscious military on the mainland.

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