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Hints of reform on Taiwan

A DECADE can seem endless if you're living under martial law. Add another decade, and then another, and most of another, and it would be more than understandable if you seemed wary when your government suddenly announced it was going to lift martial law. That is precisely what the ruling party of Taiwan says it intends to do -- lift the restrictive martial law that was imposed on Taiwan back in 1949. Taiwan's Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) says the law will be replaced with a less harsh national-security law. The Kuomintang also says it will permit the formation of new political parties, provided they are anticommunist, renounce violence, support the Constitution, and, oh yes, support the reunification of Taiwan and China. That means, of course, not supporting political independence for Taiwan, despite the fact that 90 percent of the island's 19 million inhabitants are native Taiwanese, as distinct from the mainland-linked Chinese who still dominate the island politically and economically. The Nationalists continue to insist that Taiwan is part of China -- a China of which they claim that they, and not the communists in Peking, are the legitimate leaders.

The lifting of martial law is long overdue. The government, which, as of this writing, has not announced a timetable for that step, should do so as quickly as possible. The changes should be more than merely cosmetic. The justification for martial law has long passed. Taiwan is a prosperous political entity, with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world. And there is little reason to expect any imminent invasion from the mainland, as was feared back in the late 1940s, after the Nationalists, headed by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan.

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Allowing new political parties is also long overdue. Opposition leaders are already moving in that direction, a point presumably not lost on the government of President Chiang Ching-kuo, who is the son of Chiang Kai-shek. An opposition group calling itself the Democratic Progressive Party was formed recently to vie for seats in legislative elections scheduled for early December.

The winds of political change are sweeping through East Asia, underscored by the calls for political reform in the Philippines and South Korea. It would surely be in Taiwan's long-range interest -- given its extensive economic and cultural ties with the industrial West -- to welcome, rather than hinder, mounting calls for liberalization.

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