A far cry from Kosovo

Shieh Jhy-wey is Taiwan's minister of information. He is also a 53-year-old rap star with several hits to his name, a cool line in designer specs, and an avid female following.

Asked during an interview in Taipei about next month's presidential election - and a planned simultaneous referendum on whether Taiwan should apply for UN membership - Shieh dispensed with pro forma answers.

Instead he rose to his feet, dropped a shoulder, extended his arms to a startled audience of two, and launched into a quasi-tuneful rap song of his own making.

The printed word cannot do justice to what followed. But Shieh's message was unmistakable: Taiwan's voters should back the UN proposal - which China believes is a blatant bid by its "renegade province" legally to assert its independence.

"UN for Taiwan. Taiwan number one", chorused the minister again and again, tapping his feet and shaking his head. The song is available as a CD. Maybe it sounds better with backing singers.

Shieh's super-cool crooning in support of the UN vote and the Democratic Progressive party's (DPP) presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, is catchy to some ears - but may still end in tears.

Polls suggest the rival Nationalist party, or Kuomintang (KMT), is set to follow its landslide parliamentary election victory last month with a return to the presidential palace.

A charm offensive by the telegenic KMT candidate, the former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou, has earned him an estimated 10-point lead. Ma is promising better relations with China after eight years of tense sparring between Beijing and Taiwan's retiring DPP president, Chen Shui-bian.

DPP stalwarts dismiss Ma as a milksop. But although Hsieh says he too will improve cross-straits ties, many Taiwanese appear to believe the Nationalists have a better chance of conciliating the old enemy.

Opponents say the prospect of a clean sweep for the KMT, and a resulting bigger say for China in the island's affairs, is deeply worrying. They warn Taiwan's hard-won democratic freedoms, secured in 1996 after decades of KMT-led martial law, could be fatally compromised - and that politically, economically and diplomatically, China is inexorably winning its battle to "recover" Taiwan.

"The public must elect a [president] who is capable, loves Taiwan and is determined to protect the country's sovereignty," DPP vice-presidential candidate Su Tseng-chang said this week. "We are calling on voters to help preserve democratic politics."

Hsiao Bi-khim, DPP campaign manager and former MP, said the election could be a turning point. "We are worried about all the institutions of state, including the presidency and the judiciary, being monopolised by a single, unreformed party."

As US regional influence weakened, China's leverage over Taiwan's affairs was steadily growing, she said. With the Olympic games approaching, China had halted overt military threats. But Beijing was increasingly successful in denying the island "international space" by blocking its membership of organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the UN.

In a week when Washington recognised Kosovo's independence, Hsiao suggested it was particularly galling for pro-western, democratic Taiwan, the world's 20th-largest economy with a human rights record far superior to Beijing's, to be told by the US and Britain not to "provoke" China by holding a UN membership referendum.

KMT supporters say fears of a Chinese backdoor takeover are wildly exaggerated. Lin Bih-jaw, chairman of the Prospect Foundation, said Ma has no intention of kowtowing to Beijing if he wins. The DPP was losing the race because of Chen's mistakes, he said, and because most Taiwanese, worried about economic issues, wanted improved trade and other ties with the mainland.

Guo Jiann-jong, of the independent Taiwan Thinktank, said the country's growing economic dependence on China was inescapable. About 40% of all exports now went to China and investment in the mainland represented a "dangerously high" 2.65% of Taiwan's total GDP. An estimated 1 million Taiwanese live or work in China.

But economic cooperation was not bringing political progress, Guo said. "China is deliberately encouraging Taiwan to be dependent. Maybe China does not want a political understanding. Maybe it wants control."

Back at the information ministry, Shieh is no longer jigging about and has returned to his chair. But he continues to wax lyrical about Taiwan's right to UN membership.

"The problem is not Taiwan; the problem is China," he said. Taiwan is a beacon of light not only for China but all of Asia. We have proved that democracy can work in a Chinese culture."

"If there was no military threat [from China], everyone would want Taiwan to be a separate, sovereign, free and democratic nation and a good friend to China. We just want to be treated fairly by the rest of the world."

Simon Tisdall