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I was part of a Japanese media group that visited Taiwan June 18-21, took part in joint interviews with President Chen Shui-bian and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui, and came away with strong impressions of their leadership skills.

Chen and Lee, who is old enough to be Chen’s father, share a strong commitment to reforming and developing Taiwan. Both are native Taiwanese, have high intelligence, excellent reasoning power and persuasive skills, and an iron will that is masked by apparent flexibility.

The new president, who puts in 12 hours a day at the presidential office, said in an interview: “I am not the president of those who voted for me in the election, or 40 percent of the voters, but the president of all the people. I will give top priority to the national interest, instead of the interests of some political parties or individuals.” As the new commander of a three-division, 400,000-strong military force, Chen pledged “selfless loyalty” to Taiwan.

Chen also said he will:

* Convert Taiwan — once a production base for low-cost electronics products now emerging as a bastion of the information-technology revolution — into a “green silicon island” in 10 years

* Seek a meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin without any precondition for a “historic handshake” similar to that in the recent meeting between the North and South Korean leaders

* Secure the dignity and security of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and build the foundation for cooperation between Taiwan and China under the principles of democracy and equality

* Reach a conclusion on a future “one China” by building upon past cross-strait contacts, dialogues and trade.

Progress will be possible in the bilateral negotiations if there is sincerity and good will on both sides, Chen said. “One China” would become feasible only under mutually agreeable principles, he added.

Chen also said a Taiwanese advisory group is likely to come up soon with specific recommendations for reconciliation between Taiwan and China. If Taiwan’s three major political parties agree to the recommendations, it will be easier to solve Taiwan-China and domestic issues, he added.

The outlook for reconciliation between Taiwan and China is improving, due to increased international stability, the strength of the Chinese government under Jiang, and the inauguration of the new Taiwanese government, Chen said.

The Chen administration faces the difficult task of getting talks rolling on reconciliation with the Chinese government, which refuses to compromise on the “one China” principle. In addition, the administration must deal with a number of domestic issues. Among other things, it must eradicate the rampant corruption that has continued since the years of Nationalist Party rule, establish social morals and reform the legal system.

Chen is lavish in his praise of Lee — who is now refraining from all political activities — for leading democratic reforms. Both are hoping for the establishment of a free, democratic, transparent and moral Taiwan led by native Taiwanese. Former mainlanders on the island have come to accept the natives’ wishes.

Lee, in another interview with eight representatives of the Japan National Press Club, said Taiwan will move in a better direction if the new president adopts new ideas and uses different methods. However, he added, flexibility alone will not solve problems in cross-strait relations.

Lee said that Taiwan-China unification talks could be held if mainland China was democratized, but that the present Beijing government is not considering democratization at all. Political integration would be impossible as long as China remains under a single-party dictatorship. The Republic of China is alive and well, and is not the Chinese province it once was, he said.

There has been no debate on whether a unified China should be a U.S.-style federation or a British-style commonwealth, Lee said.

On another subject, Lee said large-scale Taiwanese investment in China now would be premature and risky.

Taiwan, currently pursuing democratic reforms, faces the challenge of promoting educational and legal reforms, Lee said. The present Taiwanese laws are based on the outdated mainland legal system, lack objectivity and involve arbitrary decisions by individual judges. Taiwan has been plagued by countless corruption cases since the end of World War II, Lee said.

Lee also said he was hoping to visit Japan as a private citizen in October to attend a meeting of the Asian Forum. He said he would first visit another major democratic country to make it easier for the Japanese Foreign Ministry to accept the idea of his Japan visit.

True to his words, Lee visited Britain after I came back from Taiwan. It remains to be seen if Japan will let Lee visit. Japan’s reputation as a democracy will be at stake.

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori launched his second Cabinet after the ruling three-party coalition managed to retain its majority in the Lower House in the June 25 general election, but Japanese politics remains unchanged. The ruling and opposition forces continue to make captious attacks on each other and to pursue party interests. They have failed to reveal long-term national strategies or vision. The Japanese political situation is abnormal.

Lee suggested that Japan implement drastic political reform, including public elections to choose its prime minister. This suggestion is not feasible in the immediate future. Perhaps our only hope lies in the rising tide of reform among some young Liberal Democratic Party politicians. I believe that the decline of Japanese politics stems in part from politicians’ lack of discipline and low aspirations.

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