TAIPEI, Taiwan — On the eve of what is being celebrated as the first democratic election in the history of the Chinese people, the "godfather of Taiwan's democracy" led phalanxes of flag-waving voters Friday in a march toward the presidential palace.
"Taiwan is already independent. We will never be a province of China," Peng Ming-min, the leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, declared to thousands of supporters at a rally Friday night, sparking a cacophony of horn blasts, chants and cheers.
Just a decade ago, the mere mention of independence meant a prison term. The fact that Peng has led thousands of pro-independence supporters down boulevards once tramped by Nationalist soldiers upholding martial law is evidence of Taiwan's democratic transformation--one set in motion more than 30 years ago, partly by Peng himself.
But even Peng's staff admits that the front gates of the palace are probably as close as he will get to Taiwan's highest office. At a time when Beijing is firing missiles toward Taiwan and conducting military exercises nearby to curb its inclinations toward independence, a vote for Peng would be a sure invitation for invasion, many fear.
"The desire for independence is in our hearts, but maybe it's not the best for Taiwan right now," said manufacturer Jeff Yang, 42. "It could mean war."
Indeed, the mainland has promised to retake Taiwan by force if the territory, which China claims as its own, tries to separate. Peng is the only one of four candidates who promises to pursue independence, but two weeks of Chinese displays of force have scared many of those who wanted to protest China's heavy-handedness into the camp of incumbent President Lee Teng-hui.
If Peng represents the Taiwanese people's desire to stand apart from China, Lee represents the island's reality of living with the mainland. While China says Lee is a closet advocate for independence, Lee insists that he is for reunification, although only after China catches up to Taiwan politically and economically--a process that may take decades.
Peng and Lee are painted at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both are Taiwan-born nationalists, with much the same agenda. The main difference is that Lee has found the delicate balance between national pride and pragmatism that will likely allow him to remain Taiwan's president.
Lee is expected to win at least half of Taiwan's 14 million possible votes in today's election, completing a 30-year journey toward democracy set in motion long ago by his once-close friend Peng.
"It's not just an election," said Lee Wei-yen, 37, a computer engineer who attended Friday's boisterous rally. "It's a quiet revolution."
And it is one that China is watching carefully from across the 90-mile channel that separates it from Taiwan. As much as Beijing fears Taiwan's independence, the spectacle of the renegade province's free and dynamic debate leading up to the selection of its president may have struck a little too close to home for Beijing.
"China, more than anything, fears democracy" said mainlander Su Zhao-zhi, who once guided China's economic and political policy. After daring to suggest a reexamination of China's Marxist doctrine, Su was stripped of his Communist Party membership and slipped out of China at the height of the democracy movement of the late 1980s. Now he is in Taiwan to observe the fulfillment of its democratic evolution.
Su said he has been struck during election week by the scenes in the plaza in front of Taipei's town hall--the local equivalent of Beijing's Tiananmen Square--where demonstrators have gathered to shout slogans against President Lee and brandish banners protesting corrupt "money politics." As in Tiananmen, uniformed police officers are at every corner--but here they're directing traffic.
"China has always said that Western-style democracy does not fit Chinese people," Su said. "If there is democracy here, that theory will be proved wrong."
Three decades ago, Taiwan's political atmosphere was much like mainland China's is today: ruled by a dictatorship with little room for dissent. During the martial rule of Chiang Kai-shek, Peng Ming-min, then a political science professor at National Taiwan University, drafted a declaration of independence and democracy in 1964 called "A Manifesto to Save Taiwan." It was considered so incendiary that Peng did not tell even a close colleague about it at dinner the day before he was arrested.
Peng spent the next six years in prison and then escaped to exile in the United States. When Taiwan had changed enough for him to safely return in 1992, his onetime dinner partner--Lee Teng-hui--was running the country.