Speaking Loud Enough for a Home Audience to Hear

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Amid the bellicose rhetoric flying across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing saves its angriest words for one man: Lee Teng-hui. It was the Taiwanese President, Chinese officials argue, who sank any hope of rapprochement by asserting last July that cross-Strait relations be conducted on a special state-to-state basis. Hardly a day goes by without China's media vilifying Lee as a splittist and a traitor. In one commentary, Liberation Daily described him as a rat running across the street with everybody shouting, 'Smack it!' Were it not for Lee's rash statement, Beijing implies, the two sides would have little to fight over. Our biggest concern is to keep this house under one roof, says a Beijing official familiar with Taiwan policy. As long as we're all under it, all quarrels are negotiable. But for the selfish reason of wishing to leave his mark in history, Lee pulled down this proverbial roof.That sense of betrayal helps explain Beijing's hardened position toward Taiwan, as laid out in last week's provocative White Paper, published by the government's highest body, the State Council. Economic ties between the two sides have flourished in the last decade: Taiwan investors have injected $40 billion into the mainland economy, and two-way trade has topped $26 billion. But polls in Taiwan show increasing alienation from the mainland and fewer people in favor of reunification on Beijing's terms. A younger generation of Taiwanese do not remember the united front that the communists and nationalists presented against the Japanese in World War II and are fiercely protective of the freedoms they now enjoy. The leaders of Taiwan's evolving democracy, attuned to such sentiment, have drifted further from their communist counterparts.
But while Chinese officials certainly meant to send a message to the leading candidates--and to voters--not to pursue Lee's more assertive line, Beijing's fierce talk may have more to do with domestic concerns. The sclerotic communist leadership is haunted by the specter of national humiliation and international impotence in China's past. Party chieftains are still smarting over the bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade by the U.S. last May, which virtually all Chinese believe was intentional. Officials feel besieged by what is often referred to as an international conspiracy to stunt China's progress and even dismember the country. At home, Chinese leaders are sparring with the real and perceived threats to their power from disparate groups of political dissidents, jobless workers, marginalized farmers and Falun Gong, a meditation group that claims 70 million adherents.

At the same time, Taiwan's increasing assertiveness has exposed China's relative military weakness. Analysts doubt Beijing has the capacity to invade Taiwan and say the People's Liberation Army would pay an onerous price for trying. Clearly, Beijing needs to find a face-saving way to gain the high ground, without having to resort to force.

Above all, though, the White Paper reveals a deepening divide in Beijing over how to handle the question of Taiwan. Says Bates Gill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington: This warning shot reflects efforts to placate those who want a tougher stand on Taiwan. If he wants to remain in power after his term expires in 2002, Chinese President Jiang Zemin will need to win the support of hard-liners who think he has been too soft toward the splittists in Taiwan. Will it be the litmus test for Jiang? Probably, although he faces more immediate domestic challenges: rising unemployment, corruption, Falun Gong.

In fact, Jiang may be thinking well beyond 2002. Having presided over the return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty--and having failed so far to turn around the economy--Jiang hopes to make his mark as China's great reunifier. The missing piece of the puzzle is the biggest: Taiwan. If Jiang cannot bring the island into the fold, he at least needs to project an image of resolve. Says an official in Beijing: No Chinese leader can afford to appear weak on Taiwan.

That need may have pushed Beijing into a rash declaration. However seriously leaders meant the White Paper to be taken, they are now beholden to its words. It sets a dangerous precedent, says a Western diplomat in Beijing. It creates an option that could be used at a later date. What scares me is that now we're halfway to a deadline. Next time it might be more than bellicose rhetoric crossing the Strait.