Ma Ying-jeou is weary. The presidential candidate for the Kuomintang, or KMT, slumps into an economy-class seat on a high-speed train bound for central Taiwan. It's 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night and he has already endured a grueling 12-hour schedule of campaign events seminars, speeches, and a ceremony launching his latest book, Silent Courage. Yet with a crucial presidential election only days away, Ma, 57, can't afford to waste a single second. Minutes after his train arrives in the city of Taichung, Ma is whisked from the tracks into a waiting car and driven at top speed to Caotun township in Nantou county. Once there, Ma, casually clad in a pinstriped shirt and blue jeans, takes questions informally from an excited group of villagers at the home of a local antique collector. At 10:30, Ma is still telling jokes and talking politics. One giddy, curly-haired woman asks him to autograph her Coach handbag.
Most of all, Ma regales the packed room with his vision of Taiwan's future one based on a radically altered relationship with Taiwan's rival, China. Taiwan, he tells one inquisitive villager, needs to strengthen its ties to China for the benefit of its economy and society. Chinese tourists, he says, would visit Taiwan in the millions and lavishly spend their newly earned wealth. "But we don't want to just make money off the Chinese," Ma says. "We want to make friends with them. Then there will be less likelihood of war."
Such sentiments are the reason Taiwan's March 22 presidential election is potentially one of the most important East Asia has seen in recent memory. A Ma victory could usher in a sea change in the tense relationship between China and Taiwan. In 1949 Mao Zedong's communists chased Chiang Kai-shek's KMT from the mainland after a brutal civil war, and ever since the two have glared icily at each other across the narrow but heavily armed strait that separates them. Beijing considers Taiwan to be no more than a wayward province destined to be reunified under communist rule. The disagreement has on occasion inched close to war and remains one of Asia's potential flash points. Neither side formally recognizes the existence of the other, so nearly 60 years after their separation, Taiwan residents still cannot send a letter or take a regularly scheduled flight directly to China.
Forging a New Identity
Ma believes the time for change has come. Squished into his train seat, the Harvard-educated lawyer outlined to TIME a detailed program that he hopes will broaden Taiwan's relations with China and eventually lead to real peace. He talks of reaching a "comprehensive economic cooperation agreement" with China that would boost trade and investment across the strait. He even broaches the idea of negotiating a peace treaty with Beijing and putting in place "confidence-building measures" to scale back the military buildup on either side of the strait. "We can make cross-strait relations work for both" Taiwan and China, Ma says. "It is going to be a win-win situation."
Ma's attitude is a major turnaround from that of Taiwan's outgoing President, Chen Shui-bian of the rival Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP. In 2000 Chen made history by becoming the first non-KMT President of Taiwan. He won by tapping into and championing a rising spirit of Taiwanese nationalism. Many people in Taiwan no longer consider their island a part of China; instead, they see Taiwan as a de facto independent state and desire an identity of their own. The search for Taiwan identity also had a sharp anti-KMT edge. The KMT has historically been the party of the mainlanders who came to Taiwan with Chiang and who still hold attachments to China. Local Taiwanese islanders resented the intrusion, as well as the KMT's long dominance of the island's politics. Those Taiwanese turned to the DPP.
Today, school curriculums that had focused on Chinese history and geography center on Taiwan. Learning a local dialect such as Taiwanese, Hakka or aborigine languages the KMT once banned in the classrooms is now compulsory in elementary school. Today's youth and pop artists have also sparked a movement that embraces local culture. An ethnic slur, taike which Taiwan's mainlanders used decades ago to describe the uncultured locals they found on the island has become something cool. Taike now means a "Taiwanese character" (as in "that guy's a real character"). In his hit rap song I Love TW [Taiwan] Girls, taike icon MC Hotdog even snubs a supermodel for the down-to-earth Taiwanese gal.
Formally at least, Taiwan's independence has proven an impossible dream. Beijing, highly sensitive to any threat to its claims to the island, has successfully thwarted Taiwan's efforts to get international recognition. Taiwan isn't even a member of the U.N. Under Chen, issues of Taiwan sovereignty and identity rose to the forefront, and he pursued a series of policies aimed at bolstering Taiwan's sense of independence. For example, on the same day as the election, Chen's government has scheduled a controversial referendum that will ask the public whether the island should apply to join the U.N. under the name Taiwan instead of its official title, the Republic of China.
The strategy, however, has backfired. Chen's actions irked Beijing, and relations between the two have been more or less frozen for eight years. In early March, Chinese President Hu Jintao called Taiwan's independence efforts "the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait." Chen also annoyed Washington, Taiwan's chief ally, which came to see him as a troublemaker bent on escalating tensions with China. At the same time, Chen brought Taiwan no closer to true independence. Instead, the island got further isolated within an Asia that is more tightly linked around an expanding China. "We tried to help our sense of Taiwan identity, but it resulted in self-marginalization in the region," says Philip Yang, a political scientist at National Taiwan University in Taipei. As a result, "we believe Taiwan is losing its edge, losing its advantages and losing its chance at long-term prosperity."
Ma's solution is simple: Don't rock the boat. His policy is enshrined in what are called the "three nos": no unilateral moves toward formal independence, no talks with the mainland on unification and no use of military force. The idea is to ditch the ideological hang-ups of the Chen years, stop irritating Beijing and pursue a new, pragmatic approach that focuses on improving relations with China wherever possible. "We have to find a way to manage the sovereignty issue without solving it," says Ma. "The idea is not that each side recognize each other. It is not that each side deny each other. We ignore the sovereignty issue and concentrate instead on more urgent matters."