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New Taiwan Leader Pledges to Mend China Ties


The government of Taiwan is also shifting direction. This time, though, the United States is likely to be pleased with the change. Taiwanese voters elected a new president today. He is Ma Ying-jeou, and he's less likely than his predecessor to butt heads with China. Ma is a Harvard graduate and a former mayor of Taipei.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn sent us this report from the Taiwanese capital.

ANTHONY KUHN: Central Taipei erupted in a sea of Nationalist Party flags at the news that Ma had captured 58 percent of the vote. That's the biggest popular mandate so far in Taiwan's four presidential elections. His rival, ruling Democratic Progressive Party candidate Frank Hsieh, barely managed to win his party's southern stronghold counties and pulled in 42 percent of the vote. In a press conference right after his victory, Ma indicated that he would seek to ease tensions with mainland China.

President MA YING-JEOU: Taiwan in the future will be a responsible stakeholder in the world. We will not rock the boat in regional waters. By responsible stakeholder, I mean a peacemaker, not a troublemaker.

KUHN: Ma said that he would first liberalize transport tourism and investment links with the mainland before tackling the thornier question of political ties. Beijing sees Taiwan as unfinished business left over from the civil war Beijing won in 1949. Ma made it clear that a lot has to happen before any peace treaty can be signed.

Pres. MA: If we are to negotiate a peace treaty, they have to remove the missiles target against Taiwan because we don't negotiate peace under the threat of war.

KUHN: Ma also pledged to strengthen Taiwan's security cooperation with the U.S. Professor Yen Chen-Shen of National Chengchi University(ph) in Taipei says that some people suspect him of being soft on mainland China, so he'll have to be careful in negotiating with Beijing.

Professor YEN CHEN-SHEN (National Chengchi University): He knew that people worry about maybe he will sell all Taiwan to China. So I don't think he would negotiate at all in the next four years.

KUHN: Yen notes that Ma has been outspoken in criticizing Beijing over human rights abuses and its suppression of the recent unrest in Tibet. Still, he says that Beijing definitely prefers Ma to his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. Casting his own vote at an elementary school this morning, Chen continued to play the China card against Ma.

Mr. CHEN SHUI-BIAN (Former Taiwan President): (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: I hope our new national leader will not let Taiwan become a second Hong Kong or a second Tibet, he said, or the object of bloody suppression by mainland China. When Chen won the presidency in 2000, he was hailed as a hero for knocking the Nationalist Party out of power after decades of authoritarian rule. But a string of corruption allegations sent his popularity plummeting.

Along with the election, voters today also rejected referendums on Taiwan rejoining the United Nations as a country separate from China. Both Washington and Beijing saw the referendums as a provocation, and most voters ignored them. The Democratic Progressive Party blames them and the Nationalists for stymieing the referendums. It points to people like airline employee Lee Wei-Yu(ph) and says Taiwanese public opinion remains in favor of United Nations membership.

Mr. LEE WEI-YU (Airline Employee): (Speaking in foreign language).

KUHN: I approve of Taiwan entering the United Nations, Lee says. China and Taiwan has been separated for so long. In fact, we've become an independent nation. Ma Ying-jeou says that after working on economic and political relations with China, his priority will be to try to break Taiwan out of the diplomatic isolation Beijing has imposed on it.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.