In the quintessential contrast between bullets and ballots, while hundreds of Chinese riot troops spread out over Tibet to suppress demonstrations in the wake of the March 14 massacre in Lhasa, Taiwanese voted in the nation's fourth direct presidential election on Saturday.
The March 22 election also marked the second transfer of power between Taiwan's major parties. The election of President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000 ended 50 years of dominance by the Kuomintang (KMT). With the election of Ma Ying-jeou on Saturday, the KMT, or Nationalists, returned to power. Mr. Ma won the presidency by 58 percent to 41.5 percent for the DPP's Hsieh Chang-ting.
The candidates had strikingly similar resumes. Mr. Ma received a law degree from Harvard. Mr. Hsieh got a Master of Law from Kyoto University. Mr. Ma was mayor of Taipei for eight years. Mr. Hsieh was mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, for seven years. Each was chairman of his respective party.
Nor were the candidates that far apart on policy questions. The quietly charismatic Mr. Ma deplored what he termed "The DPP's drive toward de jure independence" and called for an eventual peace treaty with China. But Mr. Hsieh also urged a less confrontational approach than that of President Chen.
Both candidates favored increased trade with the mainland (where Taiwanese have already invested $100 billion) to jump-start the island's stalled economy.
The election seemed more a rejection of the DPP than a demand for a drastic change of course toward the mainland. Mr. Chen's first term went so badly he was re-elected in 2004 by less than 30,000 votes out of 12.9 million cast.
His second term was plagued by charges of corruption. In 2006, his wife and three high-ranking officials in his administration were indicted for embezzling the equivalent of $460,000 in government funds. Thereafter, Mr. Chen barely survived a recall vote in the legislature.
The DPP was so unpopular it was nearly wiped out in January's parliamentary elections — where the KMT and two allied parties won almost three-quarters of the seats in Taiwan's legislature.
What does the election mean for cross-Strait relations? When it comes to Taiwan's security, Mr. Ma seems as determined as any of his predecessors.
He condemned China's 2005 Anti-Secession Law, whereby Beijing attempted to legitimize the use of force if Taiwan made unspecified moves toward "independence."
Mr. Ma blasted China's Premier Wen Jiabao when he said last week that Taiwan's future should be decided by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, instead of by the Taiwanese themselves. (And when exactly did people on the China side decide anything?) Mr. Ma called Mr. Wen's comments "ruthless, irrational, arrogant, foolish and self-righteous."
Unlike some KMT leaders, Mr. Ma attends annual commemorations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and has denounced Beijing's repression of the Falun Gong. He has also condemned the crackdown in Tibet, threatened to boycott the Beijing Olympics if it continues, and has said he would welcome a visit by the Dali Lama, who he describes as the "loveable Tibetan leader."
While promising to lessen tensions with the mainland through trade and confidence-building measures, Mr. Ma has said the Republic of China (Taiwan's formal name, preferred by the KMT) is a "sovereign nation," and has ruled out talks aimed at reunification.
To underscore his seriousness, Taiwan's president-elect has called for increasing the nation's defense budget to 3 percent of GDP, to ensure the island is "strong enough to deter an initial attack from the mainland.
On Saturday, the Taiwanese also voted on two referenda questions: Proposal No. 5 (endorsed by DPP) advised Taipei to apply for United Nations membership as "Taiwan." Proposal No. 6 (the KMT referendum) urged the "restoration" of U.N. membership as the "Republic of China," "Taiwan" or another "appropriate name."
While both received a majority of votes cast — 5.5 million for No. 5 and 4.96 million for No. 6 — neither garnered the threshold 50 percent of all registered voters required to pass.
Still, it seems clear that under the KMT the Taiwanese will continue their quest for international recognition. Taiwan is the only nation not represented in the United Nations — though it has a population larger than 60 percent of U.N. member states. Opinion polls show up to 80 percent of Taiwanese want their country represented in the world body.
The contrast between China's brutality in Tibet and the latest chapter of Taiwanese democracy couldn't be more vivid. It will stand as one of the great ironies of the 21st century that while the regime in power on the mainland is almost universally recognized as the "legitimate government" of all China (including Taiwan), the government which will soon take power in Taipei will be as diplomatically isolated as those that came before it.