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Friday, April 29, 2005

Taiwan opposition tests winds in Beijing


HONG KONG -- Little more than a month after China's passage of its antisecession law, the cross-strait situation has undergone a remarkable change. While there has been some negative fallout, with Taiwan delaying talks on expanding chartered flights between the two sides and banning journalists from two mainland news organizations, the People's Daily and Xinhua News Agency, there have also been some remarkably positive developments.

Lien Chan, the chairman of Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang, or Nationalist party, went to mainland China this week at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party. He was to be received by President Hu Jintao, general secretary of the communist party.

The visit is fraught with symbolism as the Kuomintang was China's ruling party until 1949 -- when the Communists won the civil war. It was Taiwan's ruling party from 1949 until 2000 -- when Chen Shui-bian won the presidential election. Since the Kuomintang is now in opposition, any reconciliation between it and the communist party will not end the standoff between China and Taiwan.

In fact, Chen had opposed the visit to the mainland by Lien. A vice chairman of the Kuomintang, Chiang Pin-kun, last month led the first Kuomintang delegation to mainland China since 1949. Chiang was met by Jia Qinglin, a member of the nine-man Politburo Standing Committee.

After Chiang's return to Taiwan, there were calls for his arrest on treason charges for having had dealings with an enemy government. A heated legal argument arose over whether China should be considered a "foreign government" since Taiwan calls itself the "Republic of China." The High Court announced a criminal investigation into whether Chiang's China visit subjected him to charges that could carry a seven-year prison term.

However, just before Lien was to leave for the mainland Tuesday, Chen reversed himself. Addressing members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, the president said the law does not bar Lien -- or James Soong, chairman of the opposition People's First Party, who has also accepted an invitation to visit Beijing -- from crossing the strait.

In fact, he said, the two men "will have the chance to talk with Chinese leaders directly and therefore provide us with firsthand information." He added, "We could regard the visits as stones thrown to explore the roads ahead, and give them our blessing."

Both the government and opposition in Taiwan are keen to have United States' approval of what they are doing vis-a-vis China. Lien met with Douglas Paal, head of the American Institute in Taiwan and thus the unofficial ambassador, on April 20 and briefed him on his trip.

The State Department has generally favored dialogue between the two sides of the strait, declaring visits by Taiwan politicians to the mainland as "positive steps." However, Randall Schriver, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, has said that visits by opposition leaders are productive only if they lead to dialogue between the Chinese leaders and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. "Leaders in Beijing will ultimately have to talk to the elected leaders in Taiwan and the government that is in power," he said.

Beijing, of course, knows that it can create problems for Chen and the ruling party by wooing the opposition. If, for example, it agrees with the opposition that Taiwan should have observer status in the World Health Organization -- something that Taiwan has wanted for years -- it can enhance the standing of the KMT and PFP while isolating the DPP.

However, Beijing is realistic enough to know that the next presidential election is three years away and that there is no way of ensuring an opposition victory. So Beijing will have to deal with the current government if it wants progress in cross-strait relations.

Beijing's current policy was described by professor Jia Qinglin of Peking University at a conference in Hong Kong last weekend as one of "making the carrot sweeter and the stick harder." On one hand, Beijing threatens the possible use of force, while on the other hand it holds out the possibility of goodies that it knows Taiwan badly wants.

The visit by opposition politicians to Beijing, therefore, could well be a prelude to overtures to the DPP government. It is entirely possible that instead of greater estrangement, the antisecession law may lead to greater dialogue between the two sides of the strait. But, of course, much will depend on what Chen decides to do.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator ( frank.ching@gmail.com).


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