In the eve of the victory of opposition candidate Chen Shuibian in Taiwan’s March presidential election, there were jitters aplenty. Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji, usually cast as the mainland’s "nice cop," waggled an admonitory finger on television and warned the Taiwanese not to vote for Chen, who had been an advocate of Taiwan’s independence. I heard of at least one person who cast his vote and then took the next plane out. When the votes were counted, Chen’s victory caused consternation in Beijing and caught Washington by surprise. Some in Taiwan’s military were also reportedly unhappy with Chen. A rumor made the rounds on the eve of his inauguration that a Taiwan jet or naval ship might defect to China as Chen was sworn in. Some even feared civil unrest.
In the event, nothing of the sort happened. Even some in the long-ruling Kuomintang party seemed to take a slight satisfaction: Their loss of power at least proved that the political reforms they had implemented were genuine. The winners were pleased but still pinching themselves: They had come a long way, from their beginnings in the streets fighting the police to the corridors of power. Given the potentially explosive passions that still lie beneath the surface in Taiwan politics, the good sense and even good fellowship were all the more remarkable. In Taiwan for the inauguration in May, I found the island more confident and full of life than I have known it in almost 30 years. And a key to it all is the much underestimated Chen Shuibian himself.
A core of principle
Chen came to the highest office after 20 years as a key leader in Taiwan’s democratic opposition. Many expected him to prove inept and divisive. Certainly he is a contrast to many of his opposite numbers among the Kuomintang stars of his generation; in addition to being very able, as is Chen, they tend to have studied abroad and have near-native command of foreign languages. Chen’s parents were landless farmers in Taiwan’s south; peasant style, he calls himself "A-bian" — a populist anomaly in a society where graduate schools and advanced degrees figure in conversation the way weather does to the British. Not that A-bian lacks qualifications: He scored top in the island-wide college entrance examination and graduated from the Law School of National Taiwan University. But no one groomed him for success. His choices ever since he abandoned a lucrative career in corporate law to defend political prisoners (and eventually served prison time himself) have not been those of a careerist.
Nor have foreigners, by and large, taken to Chen. Washington apparently feared him as an "extremist." Many were privately relieved a few years ago when he was defeated for reelection as mayor of Taipei by a Kuomintang full-court press — a loss that, ironically, pushed him into the presidential race. In fact, few policy people had ever met him. State Department rules permit only low level officials to visit Taiwan, and even they had neglected the fundamental diplomatic duty to get to know the opposition as well as the ruling party. They knew the familiar Kuomintang faces, young and old, but had less of a feel for Chen and the DPP — even though, during his term as mayor of Taipei, Chen had been easy to find: The new City Hall is an easy walk just across the plaza from the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
This concern, to be fair, was not entirely a function of ignorance. In my handful of meetings with Chen over the past few years I was always troubled, while sensing his obvious high intelligence and political skills, by a certain rigidity or lack of subtlety; a tendency to oversimplify, particularly when he discussed foreign or China policy.
Those doubts have now dissolved completely. Chen’s cabinet choices, drawn from both his own Democratic Progressive Party and the defeated Kuomintang, are generally agreed to be first rate. His choice of prime minister in particular is inspired: Tang Fei, current defense minister and a former air force general, a man universally respected both for the way he modernized Taiwan’s air force and for his dedication to the principle of civilian control. The choice sends the right messages to the Taiwan military (reassuring), to the PRC (firm), to the Kuomintang, of which Tang is a lifelong member (conciliatory), and to the people of Taiwan (statesmanlike).
As all the bright but untested officials took office in Taipei, among them antinuclear protesters, aboriginal rights activists, feminists, and so forth, there was something reminiscent of the chaotic Clinton transition — but with a difference. Judged by the talent of its members, the Clinton administration could once have been considered promising. What led to its failure was the deep disorder in Clinton’s soul. Chen’s personal core, by contrast, is rock solid, and that solidity will pull the new administration together. His family, shown on television, was a moving sight: his elderly mother, his wife in a wheelchair he lifts her into and out of (she was crippled when a truck repeatedly drove over her in an unsolved, probably political, "accident"), and their children — of military age (he was the only candidate whose children would actually serve in case of war). His personal qualities elicited trust from the voters: they trust A-bian to clean up political corruption and crime (the biggest issues in the election); they trust him not to surrender to China, no matter how much Beijing (or Washington) might pressure him.
I decided that the stubbornness I had detected in Chen was principle, and a classical Chinese text came to mind that explains its central role: "to rule by virtue is like the pole star: It sits in its place while the other stars follow their courses around it." Such solidity will serve Taiwan well.
Across the straits
The eyes of the world, however, were on none of this. The big question for the international media between Chen’s election in March and his inauguration in May was, "Will China attack Taiwan?" It might be the case that how Chen deals with corruption and other domestic issues in Taiwan will determine his success or failure; it might even be the case that how Beijing’s leaders deal with their domestic problems, corruption included, will decide their fate. None of that was relevant. Beijing was clearly out of sorts with his victory: Official Chinese media couldn’t even bring themselves to mention Chen’s name. (They used it once, when reporting, without comment, the results). Worldwide, the news was filled with alarmist stories, all insisting on a single point: Chen must "accept ‘One China’ " as Beijing defined it or disaster would follow.
It was a vague demand. As Hong Kong columnist Frank Ching pointed out, if you accept that Taiwan is part of China, then clearly "One China" does not exist now, so what exactly did it mean? But in spite of the vagueness, China’s demands were insistent and not without menace. "Routine" Chinese artillery training exercises began near Quemoy shortly after the inauguration and the endless detonations brought back the terror of the 1950s bombardments for those old enough to remember. The possibility of war was all people wanted to talk about when I briefly visited Hong Kong just after the ceremonies.
I remain skeptical about China’s willingness actually to use force against Taiwan. The reason is that to do so would be suicidal. An amphibious invasion is out of the question. As for the much bruited possibility of missile bombardment, Hitler bombarded London with thousands of V-1 and V-2 rockets, to no discernible effect. China has 250 or so missiles it could fire at Taiwan before running out, and they would do damage — as much as an earthquake, people say, which means not enough to win. Even without American intervention, Taiwan would weather the storm and probably strike back. Meanwhile CNN would focus on each incoming warhead as closely as it did on those Iraq fired at Israel during the Gulf War. An American president would have no choice but to act: militarily of course, but also to completely shut all American markets to China. China’s economy depends for survival on imports of oil and massive exports of manufactured goods, and as these halted, the resulting internal crisis would undermine completely the delicate political bargain that has existed since 1989 between the Chinese government and its people: namely, you keep your heads down and stay out of politics, and we will guarantee you a rising standard of living.
The events of 1989 and the international response to the Tiananmen massacre constitute a good parallel. Then China was killing its own people, in one place, for a few hours. Yet her international position and economy nearly collapsed. As Western investment and Western tourists dried up, it was waves of visitors and money from Hong Kong and Taiwan that saved the day, and neither would be available in a straits crisis. Even the few hours of domestic slaughter, moreover, spooked neighbors: I was evacuated on a charter from Shanghai to Tokyo that June, and I well remember Japanese at Narita sucking air in through their teeth in the characteristic manifestation of concern. If and when China actually attacks Taiwan or another of her neighbors, Japan and the other Asian states will respond with major armament programs of their own, which will not be good for anybody, least of all for China. Tiananmen was bad; an attack on Taiwan would be a hundred times worse.
The danger of course is that China’s leaders will not understand this. They have fostered militant nationalism as a tactic to hold power since Tiananmen but may not be able to control it. They are, moreover, prisoners of their own propaganda; their yes-men amplify the messages they want to hear. Finally, the Clinton administration has confirmed their perception of American weakness by yielding in the past to Chinese threats. For them to believe that we might actually stand aside while they "bludgeoned" Taiwan (as the New York Times once put it) is a potentially disastrous misunderstanding, but one we have helped to create. Therefore if peace is to be ensured, we need to convey these facts by words and actions, and on balance we are doing so, albeit without much margin for error.
The Chinese cultural world
Far more important to Asia’s future than a possible risk of war is the tremendous impetus events in Taiwan give to the democratic agenda for the whole region. In Hong Kong just after the inauguration, interviewers on RTHK radio and Star TV tried to make me focus on the sensational possibilities of war and bloodshed over Taiwan, to which I responded that they were missing the real story. With Taiwan now completely free, the spotlight will turn to the rest of the Chinese cultural world: to Hong Kong (where full democracy is promised within eight years), to China itself (where people want it but the government has ruled it out), even to Singapore (where the recent presidential "election" dispensed with the actual business of voting since, it was said, the outcome was obvious).
The traditional excuses for denying political participation ("Asian values," stability, and so forth) are looking rather threadbare. I asked people in Hong Kong how they would have felt if, in 1997, they had elected a Legislative Council and a chief executive to take power when the British left. Very proud, was the answer — like the people in Taiwan today. The inhabitants of Hong Kong and Singapore are every bit as prosperous and well-educated as those in Taiwan. The same is true for some of China’s coastal cities. (Not that economics is the key.) Wang Dan, Lin Xiling, and Wei Jingsheng, all veteran Chinese democratic activists, attended Chen’s inauguration. The demand for freedom and democracy will continue to grow.
Look out over the years from now until 2008: During that period there will be two more sets of legislative and presidential elections in Taiwan. They will get plenty of coverage. In Hong Kong, existing law requires that the decision be made by then whether to move to full democracy and an elected chief executive. China has no easy option. A negative answer will greatly displease the Hong Kong people and hurt China’s image, but a yes will pave the way for a Hong Kong leader having a legal mandate far more impressive than any in Beijing. In China itself there will be at least two important party meetings which will decide, among other things, whether Jiang Zemin stays in office. Even without postulating that likely economic troubles or strikes or other unrest will unexpectedly confront China during this period, the calendar is full of precipitating deadlines. Add to this the desire of many in China for political reform and the sympathy thus generated for Taiwan, and you have an idea of what is coming.
Given all this, the policy assumptions that have guided U.S. Asian policy since the Nixon administration are also looking threadbare. In the 1970s many Americans were convinced that our defense of "freedom" in Asia had been quixotic and mistaken. The authentic nationalism of Hanoi was overwhelming our puppets in Saigon. Likewise Mao’s vigorous "New China" in Beijing would soon displace the American clients in Taipei. President Carter even considered withdrawing military support from South Korea. The task for Washington was, for once, to get with the tide of change instead of opposing it.
Now it turns out we launched our boat into the wrong tide, and our policy risks being beached alongside the decaying hulk of Chinese communism. The law of unintended consequences has kicked in with a vengeance. Derecognition of Taiwan in 1979 ended dreams there of American sponsored return to the mainland, but instead of folding, the leaders in Taipei began democratizing, and the island grew stronger. Twenty years later the tide of change in Asia is toward liberal economics and politics, and the remaining autocracies are being washed away, slowly perhaps, but surely. This process of regime transition will likely reach a resolution — or possibly a crisis — in the next decade or so, as the current mixed political economies of China and the others come to the end of the line. Dictatorship will either be renewed, at bloody cost, or abandoned, to be succeeded perhaps by genuine liberalism, perhaps by chaos. Thirty years ago such a prospect was unthinkable for most experts on China.
Taiwan as sovereign state
Which brings us back to Beijing’s demands of Taiwan. These developments render extremely unlikely any change in the actual substance of what Taiwan is today. Its internal political structure is now firmly fixed (certainly more so than is China’s) and it is indubitably a sovereign state, even though the world is not quite sure what to call it or how to deal with it. Some in the 1970s expected derecognition would quickly force Taiwan to settle and become a "Special Administrative Region" of China under Deng Xiaoping’s slogan of "One country, two systems." Visiting American officials still bring up the possibility, but it is a nonstarter (polled recently, Hong Kong residents advised their Taiwanese cousins against accepting it). The "peaceful reunification" anticipated in the 1970s and still demanded by Beijing is simply not going to happen — unless (and this is an important qualifier) it takes the form of a set of verbal formulas that regularize and normalize the domestic and international relations of two distinct states, what I call "baptism of the status quo." These are the facts that Beijing, Washington, and the rest of the world now must digest.
In his inaugural address Chen suggested much of this indirectly. But he spent most of his time talking about democracy, rule of law, and human rights, in words that must have stung the ears of the Beijing leadership as they waited for him to address their demands. When he turned to these toward the end of his address, Chen showed great goodwill and flexibility, more than enough to disarm, for now at least, those who always blame Taiwan when tension rises, and even more importantly, to demonstrate to Beijing that if they were serious, they could deal with him.
Chen pledged to keep the current constitution, not to change the country’s name, and not to declare independence, all so long as China does not show an intention to use force. In all this he maintained close continuity with previous Taiwan administrations. He even spoke, carefully, about "a future one China." The pledge against independence was particularly important, since such a declaration regularly figures in worried American scenarios for conflict. (Shortly before going to Taiwan I debated former Ambassador Chas Freeman at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York: Whom should we pressure harder, Beijing or Taipei, if — the familiar bugaboo — "Taiwan declared independence and China responded with force"?) Making the pledge against independence conditional on nonuse of force by Beijing deftly shifts responsibility.
Given Chen’s background as an advocate of Taiwan independence, I was skeptical that he could accept the demand that he endorse "One China" (and also skeptical that even if he did, it would lead anywhere: All Taiwan presidents before him had accepted "One China" and it had gotten them nothing, so it could not be the key some claimed. Even now, China treats it as no more than the ticket to the negotiating table, good for one admission but to be discarded thereafter. Agreeing to it would not, according to Beijing, end China’s blockade of Taipei diplomatically and in international organizations, even though no agreement could in fact succeed without bringing Taiwan back into international society). My analysis was confirmed five weeks after his inaugural, when Chen went so far as to endorse the formula that made possible the highly sucCessful 1993 Singapore talks between the two sides: namely, "One China, with each side having its own interpretation" — and China dodged.
Nevertheless, the way Chen dealt with China-related issues in his inaugural address left little doubt that if Beijing is serious about settling with Taiwan — and rumor has it that President Jiang Zemin sees that as his chance at a legacy to match Mao and Deng — then Chen can deliver a deal. How might he do it? It all comes back to something called the "Republic of China." To understand this, let us consider the problem of the national anthem.
The inaugural ceremony was carried out on bleachers above the plaza in front of the Presidential Building (the former Japanese governor’s headquarters). The day was perfect: breeze, an overcast that blocked the sun, but no rain. Foreign guests were the second and third string vips who populate Taiwan events: leaders from small countries that recognize Taipei; retired officials; a very low profile U.S. delegation headed by Laura d’Andrea Tyson; and friends of Taiwan from academic and political circles. Most of these were from the right of center politically, and I kept asking myself, Where are the liberals? Weren’t democracy and freedom traditionally issues for the left? Lech Walesa had come from Poland and a few others appeared: Harvard professor Roderick MacFarquhar, a former Labour mp in Britain, Carl Gershman from the National Endowment for Democracy, and former Rep. Stephen Solarz — but incomparably more of America’s great and good rose from their seats to applaud Jiang Zemin last year at the People’s Republic’s fiftieth anniversary gala in Shanghai than joined this milestone event for freedom.
The ceremony began with music. Performances ranged from classical compositions both Chinese and Western in style to Taiwan aboriginal folk melodies, culminating with the national anthem, sung by Chang Huimei, better known as A-mei, a young woman of Taiwanese aboriginal ancestry. I had never heard of her before this performance, but when it was finished I understood fully why she is a star across China and throughout Asia. Her rendition was both respectful and electrifying, and was powerfully applauded.
Beijing, however, was offended, and reprisals were announced in short order: A-mei’s CDs could no longer be sold in China; a Sprite commercial in which she appeared was banned there, and Coca-Cola announced the company was reconsidering her contract; future concert plans were up in the air. Beijing had decided to make an example of her. Why? A-mei was accused of supporting "separatism" by singing the national anthem.
And what national anthem, exactly? Not, as one might expect given Beijing’s reaction, a Taiwanese separatist hymn (of which plenty exist) but rather a Chinese national anthem, words written in 1924 by no less than Sun Yat-sen himself, honored not only in Taipei but also in Beijing as the "Father of Modern China" and sung by all in China, communists included, during that country’s finest modern hour, the war of resistance against Japan, 1937-45. The only thing "Taiwanese" about the anthem is that, since 1949 when the communists took power on the mainland and substituted their own, Taiwan has been the only place in the Chinese world where it has retained its status. Now, Beijing may very well have good reason to condemn the singing of Sun Yat-sen’s anthem, but it cannot be "separatism." To sing it at Chen Shuibian’s inauguration is, if anything, an affirmation of shared origins, shared values, and even shared nationhood — which brings us to the fundamental defect in Beijing’s approach. Beijing acts as if it possesses a monopoly on "Chineseness." Democratic activists in China, willing to go to jail for their convictions, arguably love that country more than do corrupt officials whose looted gains fill foreign bank accounts. Yet Beijing labels political dissent fan hua, "anti-Chinese." By the same token, it classifies as "separatism" just about anything done in Taiwan, short of running the five star (communist) flag up the pole and saluting it, whether those doing it are loyal to the Republic of China, or call for a Republic of Taiwan. Doing so utterly misreads the sentiments of the people on the island and throws away the one basis for amity or even unification that has any serious chance of working, which is to treat affirmation of the Republic of China as an affirmation of national unity.
"Republic of China" was from 1911 to 1949 the legal name for a unified Chinese state ruled first by the military leaders of the fallen Qing and then by Sun Yat-sen’s heir, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang took the name to Taiwan when he fled there at the end of the civil war. There his government continued to be recognized by the United States as the sole legal government of all of China, under the Republic of China name, until 1979, with no change in constitution, flag, anthem, or other symbols from what they had been since the 1920s on the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile Mao had of course proclaimed a new state, the People’s Republic of China, on the mainland in 1949 — which not only expunged the name of the Chinese republic, but even from time to time queried whether it had ever been a legitimate regime at all. Washington followed suit when it recognized Beijing in 1979. The phrase "Republic of China" was banished from official usage in the United States (even the CIA fact book does not list it), to be replaced by "Taiwan."
Washington carried out this linguistic purge because, as mentioned above, it expected that Taiwan’s independent regime would soon buckle and come to terms with Beijing. The authors of the "normalization" policy saw themselves as boldly cutting the Gordian knot, and behind all the nice words and reassurances of the time was an intent to sacrifice Taiwan — though the expectation was that Taipei would make things easier for us by going quietly, even "voluntarily." That scenario failed then and although some foreign policy types still carry the torch for it, it is not going to succeed now. Its failure, however, has created a semantic problem for the nomenclature created in the 1970s: namely, that "Taiwan" — the name now standard in international usage, newspapers, and ordinary speech — is silent about Chineseness. If anything it suggests that the island is a separate entity. For this reason Beijing and foreigners who support "One China" find themselves in the anomalous position of wanting Taiwan to call itself the "Republic of China" (which at least affirms Chineseness) — even though they do not recognize that as the name of a state, and cannot speak it themselves.
Naturally Beijing would prefer that the people on Taiwan define themselves as Chinese according to the People’s Republic definition, but that is simply not going to happen. The choice is between a kind of Chineseness that Beijing doesn’t like and Taiwaneseness, which it likes even less. Now China faces a policy dilemma along the lines of Morton’s Fork or Hobson’s Choice.
A usable past
For to the disappointment of pro-independence activists in Taiwan (who demonstrated against him as he was sworn in), Chen in his inaugural address repeatedly affirmed the legal status and continuity of the Republic of China. In the days following he reinforced the message with symbolic action: paying obeisance to Sun Yat-sen at the Martyrs’ Shrine, visiting the front line in Quemoy, calling on the widow of former president Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek, and even bowing to the elder Chiang at his memorial hall in central Taipei. This last step stuck in the craw of a lot of the new president’s supporters; to acknowledge "the Gimo" was for Chen something like Nixon going to China, since in the minds of many Taiwanese, and with good reason, Chiang is the supreme oppressor.
To be sure, without Chiang’s army from the mainland defending it, the island would almost certainly have been incorporated into the People’s Republic — as was Hainan, the comparable island off the Guangdong coast. Without Chiang’s clout in Washington and support from the "China Lobby," American assistance would never have been forthcoming. The argument can even be pushed further: Chiang made possible Taiwan’s economic miracle by abandoning statist policies in the 1950s and giving free rein to some brilliant young Chinese economists, and he insisted more generally on maintaining and developing in Taiwan an alternative Chinese society and culture. Without that example Beijing might never have realized how much better a Chinese society could do without communism.
Nevertheless, many Taiwanese associate the phrase "Republic of China" above all with the arrival of an occupying army and an unelected government, with the deaths of thousands of compatriots in February 1947 when the army crushed protests, with imprisonment, assassination, and blacklisting during more than three decades of dictatorship. The impulse of many oppositionists — including those whom Chen defended after the watershed Kaohsiung demonstrations in 1979 — was implacably hostile. They would have liked to tear down the whole edifice, and at some level and some time Chen and many of his colleagues in the new government have certainly felt the same way.
But there is also much of value in the original ideals of the Republic of China as Sun Yat-sen envisioned it early in the twentieth century. It would have been a genuinely liberal and constitutional state, with an elected parliament, free press, and so forth. In embracing it, selectively, Chen is developing a usable past. Furthermore, tearing down the Republic of China now and attempting to declare independence would polarize the island, possibly lead to bloodshed, and almost certainly would fail. Far from opening the door for Taiwan to international respectability, such a declaration would provide the pretext many still seek to freeze it out totally.
Finally, Chen is a lawyer. He understands the importance of precedent, authority, and institutional continuity. Since 1979 he has helped to lead the Taiwanese dissident movement, some of whose members once considered violence and terrorism the only possible way forward, along a path of responsible political contention — a path made possible, of course, by the liberalization over which the ruling party has presided.
The legal structure of the Republic of China may have been dry bones for 30 years, but it has acquired new life as democratic politics have developed. In his inaugural address, Chen propounded what has become the mainstream opinion in Taiwan: the willingness of the people of the island, who insist on their own sovereignty and independence, to accept as a vehicle the foreign derived shell company, the "Republic of China," which now controls only Taiwan and a few offshore islands, in order to meet the externally imposed imperative that they somehow remain "Chinese." We have the makings here of a viable compromise.
So far Beijing will have none of this. It has anathematized as "separatists" both the people on Taiwan who define themselves as (Republic of) Chinese and those who think of themselves as Taiwanese. But such blanket negation of everything Taiwan has to offer is utterly unrealistic. It may serve domestic political interests, rather as Chiang’s insistence that he would one day "recover" the mainland removed any need to face facts. But it will not lead to the achievement of Beijing’s goals.
When this is pointed out, those who speak for Beijing tend to invoke force as the ultimate and decisive resort. But as we have seen, this is not a realistic option. Taiwan is only growing stronger and more capable militarily and its people more unified. The United States, subtly but unmistakably, is signaling that it means what is has said all along about a peaceful resolution of the problem. On the day of the election Secretary of Defense William Cohen was in Tokyo; the night before the inauguration an Aegis class cruiser transited the Taiwan Strait, and word leaked out also of a satellite ground station that will give Taiwan direct access to U.S. intelligence photographs, and of a Patriot missile test, the first ever outside the United States, to be held in Taiwan next summer.
Far better to end denial and deal with facts. Calling everyone on Taiwan a "separatist" regardless of whether they sing a Chinese national anthem or a Taiwanese one thoroughly misreads the situation on the island and forces the entire population, willy nilly, into a position of hostility. The only way the problem can ever be resolved, and this is a rather remote possibility, is for Beijing to accept the Republic of China, on Taiwan, as the entity with which it deals, accepting both its political independence and its implicit Chineseness. That seems to be what Chen is offering, and it has overwhelming support in the island. My conversations in China suggest that a lot of Chinese people would welcome it as well. They have no desire for war, admire Taiwan’s reforms, and want change at home. The question now is whether leaders in China have the vision, and the power, to respond.
A slight chance
Frankly, I am pessimistic. The ongoing created "crisis" with Taiwan has become an integral part of China’s domestic and foreign policy. As such, it serves several important purposes and is thus not to be discarded lightly. It is a source of leverage on the United States, as well as a mission for the Chinese military more welcome than preparing to kill more students. As a "patriotic" issue, moreover, it supplies a simulacrum of legitimacy for a regime that otherwise lacks any (and is not about to seek a mandate at the polls). Deng Xiaoping might have had the guts to deal with Taiwan realistically, but in 11 years as China’s president, his successor Jiang Zemin has shown himself to lack anything approaching the requisite imagination and boldness. He is authoritarian by instinct, someone who bans, imprisons, or punishes his opponents rather than listening to them. His unimaginative approach to Taiwan has a strong authoritarian side: As he memorably put it, "without the threat of military force, peaceful unification cannot be achieved," and those threats have been rising in the past few years. He has courted the military on this issue with big budget increases and through speech and propaganda stoked the flames of irredentist nationalism. Since any conceivable negotiations would yield a settlement far short of nationalistic demands, he would risk reaping the whirlwind domestically. It is not clear that a regime that accords its own people no political rights can even contemplate according genuine rights to Taiwan. More likely Beijing wants to dominate that island’s people just as it dominates its own.
Outside of China, however, foreign reaction to Chen’s inauguration has been very positive, which means that categorical rejection will cost Beijing much of the international sympathy on which she counts. Japan has praised the new president’s moderation, and the American position has moved in a very constructive direction, as Washington seems increasingly to grasp the importance and implications of Taiwan’s emergence as a fully free and democratic state. Major policy speeches by the highest officials of the American Institute in Taiwan (our "unofficial" embassy) have praised that development and urged China to take note of its importance.
One final, small, but possibly decisive reason for hope exists as well: namely, President Jiang Zemin’s desire for a legacy. The Chinese president reportedly wants to accomplish something in office that can credibly match the reputed achievements of his predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. In truth, he is far from having done so. The one possibility is a breakthrough with Taiwan. But here is the catch.
Unless he stumbles badly, Chen Shuibian looks set to be president in Taipei for the next eight years and to preside over a fundamental remaking of the island’s political power structure. At the end of that time Chen will still be a relative youth at 57 years old, while Jiang Zemin will be over 80, and may well already have left office. Over the past decade Jiang rejected a series of proposals by Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui, all of which could have led to fundamental progress, in the expectation that Taiwan’s new president would settle for less. Chen has proved an unpleasant surprise on that count, but the fact remains that if Jiang wants his legacy, he is going to have to deal with what is on offer. He cannot hope, as Deng did, that the U.S. will ultimately force Taiwan to come to terms, nor should he imagine, as some of his generals seem to, that an attack on the island would be anything other than a disaster for China and himself. Taiwan’s democratic system plus Chen’s reasonableness mean that the U.S. will continue to keep the peace in the region. Nor, one hopes, can he possibly believe his own propaganda, which portrays the Taiwanese as thirsting after unification. The only path to the big achievement is serious negotiation with the new Taiwan administration.
Such negotiation will not be easy, and will yield at best only a small part of what Beijing currently demands. But I believe that a compromise is possible that would be acceptable to Taiwan and also allow Jiang to claim victory. Such a settlement would be immensely popular inside China. The two sides would at last be able to reap the enormous potential benefits of cooperation between their complementary economies while secure and uncoerced personal and cultural exchange would create a vast web that would draw them closer together. This is in fact the best way forward, as well as the only realistic one. The Chinese president should think long and hard before he reflexively rejects Chen’s bold overtures. They may well be his, and China’s, very last chance.