HONG KONG — The dispute over the renaming of a memorial hall in Taiwan would be hilarious if it were not for the very serious political tensions that are pitting the two main political parties against each other.

President Chen Shui-bian, to weaken Taiwan’s links to China, had ordered that the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which honors the man who ran Taiwan for a quarter of a century until his death in 1975, be renamed. The Cabinet passed new rules for the management of the hall and changed its name to the Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.

However, the Taipei municipal government, which is controlled by the opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), had earlier designated the hall a temporary historical site and would allow no changes to the structure, including the putting up of signs or banners designating a new name.

Moreover, the KMT, which has a slim majority in the legislature, questioned the legality of the name change, saying such a move required an amendment to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Act.

But the Ministry of Education, which has responsibility for overseeing the memorial hall, said the central government had made an executive resolution to downgrade the status of the hall and had exempted the building and its administration from supervision by the legislative branch.

On May 16, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, a member of the KMT, warned that if anyone removed the existing name plaque or put up a new one, he would have the person arrested. Three days later, President Chen presided over a ceremony to rename the hall. Amid protesters for and against the name change who fought each other with umbrellas, he unveiled a metal plaque bearing the name “National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall.” To avoid violating the Cultural Heritage Preservation Law, the plaque was placed not in front of the hall but in the garden surrounding the building.

Two big banners bearing the new name were hung, covering up the old name. But the municipal government ordered the banners removed and fined the ministry NT$300,000 for violating the protection and conservation rules guarding historic sites. Subsequently, the ministry hung up two smaller banners. The municipal government then imposed an additional NT$100,000 fine on the ministry.

Several days after the renaming of the memorial hall, Mayor Hau announced that the city would rename a section of Ketagalan Boulevard directly in front of the Presidential Office “Anti-Corruption Democracy Square.”

“Fighting corruption is also a key municipal policy,” the mayor said. “Besides, the boulevard was also the scene of a large anticorruption campaign last year.” The demonstrations were aimed at Chen, whose wife is undergoing trial on corruption charges. All of Ketagalan Boulevard was given this name in 1995 by Chen when he was mayor of Taipei. Its old name was Chieh Shou Road, or Long live Chiang Kai-shek Road.

Meanwhile, threats to launch lawsuits and countersuits flew thick and fast. The KMT said it would sue the minister of education for negligence. The ministry said it might sue the city for tearing down its banners. The city then said it would bring a countersuit accusing the ministry of false charges.

These antics seem childish, but the feuding, of course, reflects the dispute between the KMT, which traditionally has favored unification, and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which wants independence for Taiwan.

But, despite the surface disputes, the two parties are both moving to the center, which is where the votes are in next year’s presidential election. The DPP has nominated its most moderate leader, Frank Hsieh, as its candidate. And the KMT has disclosed that it intends to write the word “Taiwan” into its party charter, indicating support for “Taiwan-centered values.” Exactly how the amendment is worded may not be known until the party congress June 24.

The party’s secretary general, Wu Den-yi, explained that since conditions are not ripe for either unification or independence, the party’s best strategy was “to put issues related to people’s interests at the top of the party’s list of priorities.”

Presumably, this is to blunt charges by the DPP that the KMT is an “alien” party that favors China. These charges have been made by the DPP and they may well surface again in the coming campaign.

The people of Taiwan could only benefit if the KMT and DPP put aside the issue of unification versus independence during the campaign and focus on economic development. In any event, the KMT’s move indicates that it is transforming itself into a Taiwanese party, like the DPP. While this development may not be welcomed by Beijing, it is inevitable. A non-Taiwanese party has no future in Taiwan.

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