BEIJING — The just-ended visit of Lien Chan, the chairman of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), to China symbolized the end of a long-standing intra-China feud and is undeniably a diplomatic breakthrough for both sides.

In his April 29 meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Lien sought and was accorded sufficient room to express pride in Taiwan’s way of doing things within the context of respect and implied fealty to a shared imagined community called China. The public relations success of this risky diplomatic gamble raises the prospects of true cross-straits reconciliation and the imminent resolution of historical issues.

Though the deft panda diplomacy (China offered two giant pandas to Taiwan as a goodwill gesture) and scenic photo ops brought to mind U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, Lien’s visit was both more and less: less because Lien arrived representing not a government, but an opposition political party; more because there was no need for an army of interpreters. Lien returned to the land of his birth to patch up a long-standing “family” quarrel.

Lien’s itinerary was rich in symbolism. He touched down first in Nanjing, site of the old KMT capital, which was savaged by invading Japanese troops in 1937. The KMT’s fidelity to the notion of Nanjing as China’s capital was so strong that for years Beijing could not be referred to as a capital city in Taiwan’s press.

During the Cold War, the quaint concept of regarding Nanjing as China’s “true” capital — that is, the last city on the mainland from where the KMT had ruled — went far beyond wordplay: The elaborate and lavish Chiang Kai-shek memorial in the heart of Taipei does not follow the standard north-south orientation of classical Chinese architecture, but instead points toward distant Nanjing.

From Nanjing, Lien traveled to Beijing with a visit to the Forbidden City scheduled even before official talks and press conferences, following the time-worn footsteps of provincial and foreign emissaries and ambassadors. After that, Lien was given the chance to address Chinese students in a live nationally televised address. Lien’s talk was a hot ticket on the Peking University campus. His nuanced but candid speech won immediate praise; in it he noted that his mother had attended school there, making it his “mother school” and his alma mater as well.

When Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Jintao and Lien shook hands on a swath of red carpet in the cavernous, chandeliered Great Hall of the People, putting aside painful differences for the common good, they effectively invoked the memory of the history-altering collaboration between Mao Zedong and Chiang. What can not be resolved with a hearty handshake is how this sumptuous Peking Opera will play back in Taiwan where interest in and adherence to the KMT-CCP shared historical narrative is weakening due to countercurrents of settler nationalism and ethnic populism.

From Beijing, Lien continued the journey to Xian, scoring a symbolic trifecta in a city with unparalleled historic roots. First he stood in awe of the terracotta warrior legacy of China’s first great unifier, Qin Shihuang, then he visited his grandmother’s tomb and old elementary school. Xian was also the site of the 1936 “Xian incident” in which Chiang was held prisoner by Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng, forcing the KMT to enter an anti-Japan alliance with Mao’s communists.

Lien flew to Shanghai, the last redoubt of KMT power before the party faithful fled to Taiwan in 1949, taking with them a sizable portion of China’s gold reserves, historical relics and a vow to return.

Everywhere Lien went there were signs of genuine popular excitement above and beyond the state-media enthusiasm. Although viewed as a stern bureaucrat at home, Lien wowed crowds on the road, talking the talk and walking the walk to achieve a rare rapport, making puns in dialect and putting brush to paper for calligraphic showmanship.

Gliding across China like an icebreaker, Lien’s delegation cleared the way for a lasting thaw. Admittedly, the lavish press coverage and the tendency in China to equate a party leader with the highest authority in effect made the journey seem a success even before the dust settled. More realistically, the expertly choreographed itinerary across a historic landscape will amount to little more than the heartwarming story of an old man revisiting home if it is not picked up by other Taiwan power brokers and more importantly, the youth of Taiwan.

James Soong, chairman of the opposition People’s First Party and a former KMT official with links to Taiwan’s elected president, Chen Shui-bian, has to do better than follow in Lien’s footsteps in his visit this week, or he will be as forgettable as the second man on the moon. He needs to draw on all his opportunistic resources to bring Hu and Chen into dialogue. Otherwise both the Lien and Soong diplomatic offensives will be reduced to political posturing by two failed presidential hopefuls.

Though a pale echo of the historic CCP-KMT united front alliances of the 1920s and ’30s urged on at the behest of the Comintern and the brutal realities of Japanese invasion, the current rapprochement is not unrelated to the recent tensions with Japan. The colonizer of Taiwan and historic foe of both the KMT and CCP could very well serve to bring Chinese of different political persuasions together again.

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