LONDON — Taiwan’s transition to democracy is complete. On Saturday, after half a century of rule by the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), the offshore island’s 15 million voters elected a president from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen Shui-bian. “I feel very, very badly about this,” said the defeated KMT candidate, Lien Chan. “I hope he will govern carefully.”

Lien is worried about Chen (or pretends he is) because the DPP has a history of advocating Taiwan’s formal independence from China. The Communist regime on the mainland has always said it would use military force if Taiwan ever dropped the fiction that there is only one China (albeit with two separate governments), and recently it has been issuing bloodcurdling threats to invade Taiwan if Chen won. But that was just bluster; the real question is when democracy will come to the rest of China.

The invasion threats are empty because China has never built up the naval capacity to transport an army across the 190 km of ocean that separates Taiwan from the mainland, and to land it on defended beaches. That requires highly specialized types of vessel that China has never built in the necessary numbers, plus a general capability for sea control that it also lacks. The People’s Republic of China cannot invade Taiwan.

It could, of course, invade Quemoy, Matsu and a few other small islands just off the mainland coast that are garrisoned by Taiwan. It could launch air raids on Taiwan proper (though it would lose a lot of planes doing so). But these actions would merely annoy Taiwan, not frighten it into submission — and they would alienate the United States and China’s other trading partners, possibly triggering the domestic recession that China’s rulers fear most.

At the other end of the scale, Beijing could use nuclear missiles to obliterate Taiwan. The only problems with that are that it would cause an apocalyptic nuclear confrontation with the U.S., and damn the regime forever for using nuclear weapons against other Chinese. Between the petty military options that would make no real difference and the big one that is unthinkable, however, there are no effective ones. Beijing’s threats are pure bluff.

The real question is not when Beijing’s troops hit Taiwan’s beaches, but when Taiwan-style democracy sweeps the mainland. The outcome of this election may well have postponed that day, for it will undermine the arguments of those in the Chinese Communist regime who advocate gradual democratization.

The Kuomintang, having ruled Taiwan as a ruthless single-party dictatorship for over four decades, has been ejected from the presidency less than 10 years after it allowed the first truly free elections. It still holds a majority in the legislature, but even that may not last beyond the next parliamentary elections. This outcome is grist for the mill of hardliners in Beijing who insist that the Communist Party’s rule is doomed if it lets up on the repression even a bit.

The fundamental debate within the Chinese Communist Party is not about ideology. It is about how to protect the wealth and privileges of those many millions of party members who have prospered mightily in the past 15 years due to their positions in the regime or their links to it.

In one corner are those — including most of the remaining ideologues — who insist that the party must not take even one step backward from totalitarian rule, for it is already standing with its back to a cliff. In the other corner are the “moderates” who, due to either superior insight or wishful thinking, are convinced that the CCP could declare democracy tomorrow and still hang onto power for a generation.

Party members, they argue, would still control almost all the key positions in the state bureaucracy, the armed forces, and even in the new capitalist economy. That is much the same “iron triangle” that kept the Liberal Democratic Party in power in Japan for 38 unbroken years from the ’50s onward, despite all the free speech, free press and free elections that you could want. Moreover, China is a huge country that is still 70 percent rural — and the only political party with an organization in every one of those half-million villages, now and for decades to come, will be the Communists.

We could hold free elections, let off the dangerous head of steam that is building up within the present system, and still stay in power for a generation, say the optimists within the party. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile, counter the pessimists.

The argument is never conducted in public, but the Taiwanese outcome will reinforce the determination of pessimistic Communists on the Chinese mainland not to yield an inch: The “reformers” in the KMT in Taiwan also argued that their party could democratize without losing power, and they have been proved wrong. (The Beijing regime’s threats to attack Taiwan are actually part of the internal struggle there, too, being mainly an attempt by hardliners to paint reformers as unpatriotic.)

The Taiwan outcome proves nothing about the mainland, apart perhaps from the fact that Chinese culture, for all its Confucian influences and its thousands of years of stressing national unity, is much less conformist than Japanese culture, and is liable to produce different outcomes. But one way or another, democracy is coming to the rest of China, too. The only bits in doubt are the timing and the tactics.

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