Never-ending story of never-never land

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The recent visits by three Taiwan opposition leaders to mainland China illustrates the new policy of Chinese President Hu Jintao, which is a marked departure from that of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

When Jiang was China’s leader, he wanted to set a timetable for Taiwan’s unification with the mainland, an idea that tended to raise tension in the Taiwan Strait. However, Hu’s policy is not to bring about political unification but merely to frustrate any attempt to bring about a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan, which already enjoys de facto independence.

Professor Xu Shiquan, vice chairman of the National Society for Taiwan Studies, who is a leading authority on Taiwan, explained recently in Beijing that the visit by Yok Yu-ming, chairman of Taiwan’s New Party, means that all three opposition parties — the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, the People’s First Party and the New Party — which together command a majority in the legislature, have been to Beijing and met with President Hu.

In effect, Beijing has forged an alliance with the majority of elected representatives of the Taiwan people.

Hu’s policy is tantamount to maintaining the status quo for the foreseeable future, something that the United States and many people in Taiwan also favor. This new stance was confirmed in January by State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who told a group of American scholars that China was “patient” where Taiwan was concerned.

This turn of events is to be welcomed. In fact, even the recently passed antisecession law reflects this stance.

Previously, Beijing had talked in terms of passing a Reunification Law. Such a law would imply the necessity to change the status quo to bring about reunification. An antisecession law, however, implies preserving the status quo through opposition to any move by Taiwan to seek de jure independence.

Just how flexible Beijing has become was reflected by Hu’s willingness to accept a proposal by Lien Chan, Kuomintang party chairman, to set up a common market comprising the mainland and Taiwan, based on the European Union model. Such an idea would previously have been unacceptable to Beijing because EU members are all sovereign states, and Beijing insists that Taiwan is not an independent country.

However, Hu was willing to accept the common market idea because Lien had accepted Beijing’s “one China” principle. As long as the “one China” principle is accepted, it appears, Beijing is willing to discuss almost anything.

The antisecession law was widely criticized in the West because it mandates the use of “nonpeaceful means” if Taiwan should move toward independence. However, professor Xu explained that the law has brought “clarity” to the situation. Prior to its passage, some people in Taiwan called China a “paper tiger” and said the mainland would never carry out its threats to use military force regardless of what provocative action Taiwan took. But now, he said, because the law has been enacted, Taiwan knows the government will have no choice but to use force if Taiwan were to declare independence.

Xu explained that the antisecession law enjoyed wide support on the mainland. He pointed out that the law had been passed unanimously by the National People’s Congress, something that is extremely rare. He recalled that appointing Hu chairman of the Central Military Commission had been opposed by eight members. Has Hu actually managed to find a formula to prevent pro-independence politicians in Taiwan from moving toward independence? One sign may be something that Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan’s leader, said recently.

Chen, who will serve as president until 2008, said he would be unable to bring about Taiwan’s formal independence in the next three years. After all, he said, his predecessor Lee Teng-hui was president for 12 years and had failed to achieve Taiwan’s independence.

But Chen is a wily politician. It is likely that he will try, in his remaining years, to strengthen the sense of Taiwan identity. Already, the government is asking schools to teach Chinese history as the history of a foreign country, and Chinese culture as foreign culture. Unless there are many more exchanges between Taiwan and the mainland, it will be difficult to expect that the island’s residents in the future will think of themselves as Chinese rather than as Taiwanese.

This tug of war for the hearts and minds of the people of Taiwan is likely to continue for many years. In the foreseeable future, however, it appears that Taiwan’s status will remain in never-never land: Not quite a fully independent country but also very definitely not a part of the People’s Republic of China.