Change in China affects policy on reunification

Taiwan strategy in flux on mainland

February 03, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Two years ago, China's prime minister warned the people of Taiwan that if they voted for the island's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, China would be furious. Vote for the DPP, he said, and "you won't get another opportunity to regret."

Last week, in an about-face, one of China's vice premiers invited members of the DPP to tour China as informal guests.

What a difference a couple of elections make.

In 2000, the leader of the DPP, Chen Shui-bian, won election as Taiwan's president. In December, his party won a sweeping victory in legislative elections, making the DPP Taiwan's most powerful party with its pro-independence policy intact.

China is reaching out to its erstwhile nemesis in hope of wielding some influence on the island. Beijing views democratic Taiwan as a part of China and is worried that the people there are moving away from reunification.

Chinese officials "are trying to be pragmatic," said a Beijing-based diplomat. "They understand the implications of the recent legislative elections."

The Taiwan Strait, separating Taiwan from China, is one of the world's great potential trouble spots. On its western shore is a country of 1.3 billion people ruled by authoritarians struggling to keep up with China's rapidly changing society. On Taiwan, less than one-hundredth China's size, are 23 million people who increasingly see themselves as having a separate identity from the mainland.

Beijing views the island as a runaway province and has threatened to reunify through war if necessary. The Communist Party considers Taiwan's return one of its top goals. By virtue of its size and influence, China might have already pressured Taiwan to reunify if not for the island's major benefactor, the United States.

But just as the Communist Party has had to acknowledge political realities in Taiwan, it also faces an increasingly pluralistic society at home.

Many Chinese strongly support the government's position on Taiwan. With greater exposure to the outside world, though, people are developing more nuanced and contrary views on a range of issues - from press freedom in China to Taiwan's future.

Consider Yang Yunzhen, 28, who teaches a course called "Construction of the Communist Party" at a Communist Party school in central China designed to train party elites.

Yang said that she opposes Taiwanese independence on the grounds that Taiwan is a part of China but that China could learn from Taiwan's democratic system - and should apply the lessons slowly.

"If the mainland adopts the system of Taiwan right now, there could be chaos," said Yang, echoing a common fear here about sudden political change. But she predicted that sometime in the distant future, China would hold general elections. "We ought to be able to do it," she said, standing in the Xidan Book Plaza, the city's largest. "That's the destination of democratization."

As Yang talked, a man reading nearby entered the conversation.

"Taiwan is like a child, the mainland is like a parent," said Zhang Chunbo, 25, who works at a fashion company in Xidan, one of the capital's main shopping districts. "When the child is naughty, the parents just take care of them" - that is, punish them.

Like most Chinese, Zhang also believes Taiwan is a part of China. Asked how he knows this, he said he read it in school.

China has a strong patriotic education system that emphasizes Beijing's historical claims to Taiwan. Every seventh-grader is required to read Political Thought, a textbook that serves as a guide about how to be a good socialist.

"The sea water has cut off the blood ties between the people of Taiwan and the mainland motherland!" says the book, which notes that the Communist Party has proposed a peaceful reunification. "This expresses the strong wish of all Chinese people, including the Taiwan brothers."

Most of the "Taiwan brothers" would actually prefer to maintain the status quo, rather than risk either unification or a declaration of independence. They fear that a formal declaration of independence would invite a Chinese attack.

The Communist Party still controls the syllabus here, but its propaganda machine does not have the influence it once exercised. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China was closed to the outside world and Mao manipulated tens of millions of people to think as he wished.

Today, the party competes with the Internet, pirated DVDs of Hollywood films and a growing variety of ideas. While nationalistic sentiment runs high in China, some question the regime's threatening stance toward Taiwan.

"There is a saying, `If you win people's hearts, you can win everything under heaven,'" Zhang said. "Whether Taiwan returns or not is not that significant to common Chinese citizens."

What might matter more is that economic relations between China and Taiwan are booming. Taiwanese firms have invested more than $60 billion in China since the early 1990s, and at least tens of thousands of Taiwanese live and work here.

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