The Dalai Lama's Trip: A Muted Outcry from China

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Nicky Loh / Reuters

Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, center, prays for the victims of Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan on Aug. 31, 2009

When exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama visited Taiwan eight years ago, Beijing went ballistic. To China's leaders, the Dalai Lama is public enemy No. 1 for, they claim, fomenting Tibetan separatism. Until very recently, the Beijing view of Taiwan was just as one-dimensional: a renegade province led and populated by disloyal subjects bent on denying China's party-given right to rule them. Put the two together and you have the mainland's worst "splittist" nightmare. As the Dalai Lama sat down with the island's then top political figures over a 10-day period in April 2001, Beijing tossed every invective across the narrow Strait of Taiwan short of declaring war.

Fast-forward to today. On Aug. 30, the Dalai Lama landed in Taiwan — regarded as precious Chinese soil by Beijing — to comfort and bless victims of Typhoon Morakot, one of the deadliest storms to strike the island. The Chinese leadership's reaction to the Dalai Lama's presence? Simply that it "resolutely opposes this." Later, China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the visit would "negatively influence" cross-strait relations, and to be sure, Beijing did cancel a couple of planned official delegations to Taiwan. But these were not deal breakers. For Beijing, which has fired missiles toward Taiwan in the past, the action was akin to throwing a snowball. In fact, on the Dalai Lama's first full day in Taiwan, the two sides, once the most implacable of foes, inaugurated direct regular flights — the first since the Chinese civil war ended 60 years ago.

What changed? Both China and Taiwan. Since becoming the island's President in May 2008, Ma Ying-Jeou has eschewed the breakaway bluster of his predecessor Chen Shui-bian and, amid the global recession, hitched Taiwan's economic future to China's growth engine. (So as not to provoke Beijing, he previously passed on an opportunity to schedule a meeting with the Dalai Lama, unlike Chen in 2001.) In the 15 months since Ma has been in office, Taiwan and China have launched a raft of trade, investment, transport and cultural initiatives and exchanges that are inexorably binding the two together. As much as it will ever trust any Taiwan leader, Beijing sees Ma as a pragmatic politician with whom it can do business.

But the transformative factor is that China finally seems to understand Taiwan. The island has always been a more complex place for Beijing to decipher than Hong Kong or Macau — straightforward former British and Portuguese colonies, respectively, whose governments could make no moral argument against the return of the two territories to Chinese sovereignty. Taiwan is different. Since 1987, when the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) lifted martial law, the island has gradually become a thriving, if somewhat rambunctious, democracy. Its 23 million people determine its future — not Beijing or London or Lisbon. Even those who favor eventual unification with China embrace a strong sense of Taiwanese identity. A sizable portion of the population — some estimates put it at as high as one-third — opposes Ma's overtures to China. It's this constituency that nurtures former President Chen's pro-independence, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), giving Taiwan at least two vital political parties, a phenomenon still uncommon in much of Asia.

Previously, China either ignored — or chose to remain ignorant about — the character of Taiwanese politics and society. Whenever Beijing was angry at the island, it resorted to threats to try to bully it into submission, tarring everyone with the same brush. But growing numbers of tourists, scholars, journalists, businesspeople and even senior officials crossing the strait in both directions have enabled China to better understand what makes Taiwan tick. Now Beijing's strategy is more nuanced. That's partly tactical and self-serving: the hard-line approach was driving people to the pro-independence DPP and undermining Beijing's goal of unification with Taiwan. But it's also a genuine effort to win Taiwanese hearts and minds and to show that China, too, is more complex than a caricature of a totalitarian state.

Take the Dalai Lama episode. The opposition DPP invited him to Taiwan in order to put Ma in a spot — he'd be damned by his people as a mainland lackey if he didn't O.K. the visit in a time of national mourning and condemned by Beijing if he did. Ma took a gamble. He approved the trip — and bet on China's leaders appreciating his dilemma. They did: their censure was directed solely at the DPP with no mention of Ma whatsoever. In dealing discretely with the assorted political forces driving the island, Beijing displayed a degree of sophistication it hadn't before. Far from harming cross-strait relations, the Dalai Lama's visit revealed how mature those relations have become.

For the next step in their rapprochement, both sides must take a leap of faith. It's great that Beijing and Ma get along, but he won't be around forever — and with all-time-low approval ratings, perhaps not even for long. As citizens of a democracy, the Taiwanese hold their elected officials accountable for their performances, voting them out when they think those officials have failed. For all that Ma has accomplished on the China front, he's taken a hit at home over the hurting economy and, more recently, over his government's less-than-stellar Morakot relief efforts. While Beijing has a big stake in Ma's political survival, it should start looking beyond the current President and the KMT and build bridges to moderate DPP politicians. After all, that party could be elected back to power.

As for those in Taiwan who still believe they can live apart from China — well, they need to get real. In today's world, no place can flourish without having a meaningful relationship with China, least of all Taiwan. In today's world, no economy can be an island. The Strait of Taiwan was long one of the world's most volatile flash points, with the potential to draw into conflict even the U.S., which is obliged under its Taiwan Relations Act to aid the island's defense. It's hard to predict the future that China and Taiwan have with each other (unification, confederation, status quo?), but it's easy to imagine, given all the progress that has occurred, that war, at the very least, is no longer a possibility. That's something to be thankful for — and something truly deserving of a Dalai Lama's blessing.