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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 15:01 GMT
Taiwan disbelief at shooting
By Angus Foster
BBC News Online, Taipei

People on the streets of Taipei reacted to the news that President Chen Shui-bian had been shot with disbelief and shock.

Fang Jin-jun, a retired teacher, refused to believe such an incident could take place in Taiwan, which in the last 20 years has enjoyed an almost-seamless transition from martial law to democracy.

A supporter of President Chen after the shooting
Such political violence is unheard of in Taiwan

"I don't think that can be right, maybe you heard wrongly? That sort of thing happens overseas, not in Taiwan," he said.

Once the news had sunk in, there was anger and even tears among supporters who raced to the hospital where the president and his vice-president, Annette Lu, were treated.

Huang Ching-yi, a 21-year-old who was getting ready to vote for Mr Chen, said she was extremely shocked by the news.

"This shouldn't happen in any country. If you don't agree with the president, you should use your vote, not do something like this," she said.

Taiwan's media was, understandably, overwhelmed by coverage of the shooting.

News channels struggled to keep up as reports came in that the president had been rushed to hospital, then that he has been injured by a firework, and finally that he had been shot.

Images of the presidential belly and bullet wound competed with pictures of chanting supporters and then a close-up of the bullet itself.

The Apple Daily newspaper rushed out a special edition, explaining ominously how the shooting was unprecedented in Taiwan's history.

Excitement lost

Yet by early evening, as it became clear the president had left hospital and elections would go ahead, a sense of anti-climax pervaded central Taipei's streets despite the enormity of what had gone before.

People headed home from work on time, the traffic was as snarled as ever. All election-eve rallies were cancelled, leaving bus-loads of police sitting aimlessly and barricades unerected.

The city's election excitement, which had been building steadily over the past few days, had been deflated.

This presidential election - like the last one in 2000 - has been full of angry rhetoric, but lacking until now in any serious violence.

Both President Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and his opponent, Lien Chan, have staged large and noisy rallies across Taiwan all week, but the only reported incidents of trouble have been a few isolated scuffles.


However, the shooting of the president raised far more serious questions, which are likely to influence the election's result, even if they are not answered before it is over.

The most obvious question is, who did it?

We've never seen anything like this

Taiwan's police said they had no suspects.

"We are hunting the culprit," said Wang Jin-wang of the National Security Bureau.

Taiwan's politicians and public will be hoping it was the act of a single person, presumably with mental problems.

Certainly there is no recent history of this level of political extremism in Taiwan since it emerged as a full democracy.

"We've never seen anything like this," said one policeman. "Don't ask me who did it."

The only possible precedent took place in 1985, when a lorry hit Mr Chen's wife and left her paralysed. Mr Chen insisted it was an assassination attempt, although police always viewed it as an accident.

Another possibility is that the shooting was carried out by an individual or group opposed to Mr Chen's policies.

President Chen
Mr Chen had angered some with his determination to stand up to China
In the lead up to and during the election campaign, Mr Chen has angered some groups of Taiwanese with his determination to stand up to China, and also with his perceived use of Taiwan's underlying ethnic tensions to bolster his campaign.

The people most opposed to him tend to favour Taiwan's reunification with China. Many came to Taiwan with their families in 1949, following the Kuomintang's defeat by China's Communists.

Some members of this group were especially incensed by Mr Chen's decision to stage a referendum on the same day as the election, since referendums are seen as a mechanism to move Taiwan gradually towards independence.

Rumour mill

Until today, few analysts would have speculated such people would resort to violence.

But after today, many things appear different.

People are saying China did it, it's a message not to declare independence
On Wednesday, a middle-aged woman who refused to give her name was handing out anti-Chen flyers near Taiwan's main station. After a few minutes' conversation, she handed over another, which she said was a poem written by a friend.

The poem called several times for Mr Chen to be killed, because of the harm he had done to Taiwan.

At the time the tone seemed childish, though that has been overtaken by events.

For some people on Taipei's streets, the rumour mill which sped into action after the shooting provided an instant solution.

"People are saying China did it, it's a message not to declare independence," according to a man who gave his name as Tony.

Blaming China is not surprising in Taiwan, even when there is no evidence to back up allegations.

Many people blame China for Taiwan's diplomatic isolation, and they remember how China fired missiles towards the island in 1996 to try to influence that election.

Until Taiwan's police have firmer grounds to go on, its people are left wondering whether the election-eve violence was an isolated incident or a sign of things to come.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"Both leaders have been shot but are in a stable condition"

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