Seeing China's future in today's Taiwan

Model: Island that taught mainland virtues of free markets now shows off free speech and politics.

August 28, 1999

WHEN Deng Xiaoping, then China's Communist ruler, looked at Taiwan two decades ago, he saw a political dictatorship not so different from his own. He also saw an unbridled capitalism that brought economic development and enriched the lives of Taiwan's workers and peasants beyond the dreams of China's counterparts.

From that ideologically unblinkered perception and envy, China's reforms were born. On a massive scale, they have worked unevenly, but certainly brought huge development and personal enrichment and naked materialism to China's coast if not to the underdeveloped west.

Now, when Dang's successor, Jiang Zemin, and his henchmen look at the renegade island of 22 million souls, they see capitalism not unlike China's own and something else they fear: democracy. It is raucous, imperfect, sometimes corrupt, first-generation democracy, but it works. People feel free and say what they think. No one jails them for it.

In the words of The Sun's Beijing correspondent, Frank Langfitt: "When strolling through Taipei, one occasionally has the sense of walking through Beijing some day in the future, perhaps decades from now. Perhaps sooner."

What must frighten President Jiang the most is not what Taiwanese say about him but how freely many denounce his nemesis, their president, Lee Teng-hui.

Free speech and political choice are habit-forming. As such, they are a barrier to the reintegration of Taiwan into China, which is the stated goal of Chinese, Taiwanese and U.S. policy. At least until China adopts similar reforms as it copied Taiwan's earlier economic experiments.

Though their rule is not effectively challenged, China's elderly leaders clearly feel insecure. Only that explains their bellicose reaction to President Lee's conversations about greater recognition, their draconian crackdown on the seemingly innocuous Falun Gong movement and their paranoid dimming of any spotlight on Tibet.

It is precisely because Taiwan was the model for China's economic reforms that its political reforms loom so dangerous to Beijing. One China is not only what mainland China's Communist rulers demand; it is also what they fear.

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