Taiwan struggles to keep its distance from mainland China

As most of the world rushes to Peking to confer honor and possible wealth on the successors of Mao Tse-tung, Taiwan is struggling to keep its distance from the mainland and to protect its autonomy. This has become increasingly difficult in the past year as Peking has warmed up its campaign to bring Taiwan under Communist sovereignty.

On the political front, Peking's biggest propaganda advantage is its agreement with Britain on the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997. China has held up the agreement as an example of how reasonable it can be in negotiations with Taiwan's Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government. But China's leaders also have pointedly refused to renounce the potential use of force to achieve its objective of reunification.

Taiwan's official response has been to reaffirm its position with greater determination, although there has been some unraveling at the edges of its prohibition of contacts with the mainland.

``Our fundamental stand has not changed. We will not negotiate with them, we will not make direct contact with them, and we will not compromise our stand,'' said Chang King-Yuh, director general of the Government Information Office and the official spokesman for the Nationalist government, in an interview.

The moral and political absolutes behind the Kuomin- tang's position are those championed by the late Chiang Kai-shek, determined anticommunist and the Nationalist military leader who set up the government here after being driven from the mainland in 1949. These absolutes rest on the assumption that it is impossible to talk with the Communist leaders on an equal footing, since they preside over a totalitarian state, and on the suspicion that Chinese Communist behavior is neither predictable nor trustworthy.

A related reason for the stalemate is that the governments in both Taipei and Peking share the ideal of a cohesive Chinese society under unified political rule. While many observers argue that this ideal is based on a historical myth, both the Nationalists and the Communists are openly committed to it.

Recently, however, some people have openly advocated talks with the Communists, saying that the impasse on unification could lead to hostilities. Some opposition politicians also support discussions. Such views fall short of endorsing Peking's call for negotiations, but they could lead in that direction. The Kuomintang apparently is tolerating such views -- perhaps because the cost of suppressing them is too high.

As for the official view of how unification could come about, it has shifted away from predictions of the imminent collapse of communism and the return of the Kuomintang to its former capital in Nanjing (Nanking) to the possibility that the mainland will gradually evolve a political and social system similar to Taiwan's.

``In our view, communism cannot be made to work in China,'' says Dr. Chang. ``What we have been doing here on Taiwan is to provide an alternative to the Communist government on the mainland. Eventually, our way of life will be chosen by the people on the mainland, though it's very difficult to fix a timetable for this.''

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