BEIJING — When Taiwan's Nationalists decided to phase out one-party rule and authoritarian press controls a dozen years ago, one of their aims was to create a colossal lighthouse of freedom whose beams would enlighten the nearby communist Chinese mainland.
Yet while a growing number of dissidents and journalists here cite Taiwan's liberalization as a blueprint for China's future, Communist Party conservatives are crushing most attempts to copy the island's evolution.
Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party, whose leaders were branded dangerous radicals until the late 1980s, has a strong chance of winning the presidency in a 2000 vote, according to polls and political analysts.
On the mainland, the Communists still use police and prisons to stifle any dissent. Last month, the would-be founders of the China Democracy Party received decade-plus prison terms, and detentions of others associated with the group continue.
Taiwan several weeks ago abolished its draconian publications law, one of the last vestiges of dictatorial rule; at the same time Beijing has closed down a handful of newspapers that were deemed too liberal.
Yet the Communist Party itself seems divided over whether to pattern China's future after Taiwan's.
"There are many middle-level, reform-minded leaders in the Communist Party who back following Taiwan's step-by-step approach toward democratization," says Anne Thurston, a widely respected China scholar who has shuttled between the US and China for two decades.
A senior Chinese ministry official says that the reformist wing of the party "wants to see China evolve into a democracy by the middle of the next century. Liberal [Communist] Party leaders realize that China's democratization could set the stage for a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, but no one dares to say that publicly."
When the Nationalists set up a rival Chinese government on Taiwan after losing the mainland to the Communists in the 1949 civil war, their system of authoritarian rule in many ways paralleled Beijing's.
Taiwan 50 years ago
As they attempted to transform Taiwan into a microcosm of the Chinese mainland and consolidate their power, the Nationalists executed or imprisoned a generation of Taiwan's cultural and political elite.
Just as Beijing's thought police periodically labeled government critics "enemies of the people," so Taiwan's security agents singled out dissidents for arrest and interrogation.
During 40 years of martial law in Taiwan, "the government had the absolute power to censor both domestic and foreign news," says C.J. Chang, a senior broadcasting official in Taiwan.
In the 1980s, both sides of the Taiwan Strait loosened controls over society, but Taiwan's government made the first move toward genuine democracy.
When former Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo prepared to lift a ban on opposition parties and a free press in 1986, he said that "we want to serve as a beacon light for the hopes of 1 billion Chinese so they will emulate our political system."
As pro-democracy protests swept across China in 1989, Taiwan's students rallied in support of their mainland compatriots, but the Chinese Army's attack on Beijing's Tiananmen Square seemed partly aimed at crushing that sense of solidarity.
Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese law at Columbia University in New York, says that, unlike in Taiwan,"There's no legal or institutional basis for press freedom in China." Yet he adds that despite the chilling effect of "crackdowns and punishments," many Chinese journalists are testing the limits of the party's tolerance, just as Taiwan's did two decades ago.
Testing limits in China
Orville Schell, who heads the journalism department at the University of California at Berkeley, says that while Beijing is now experimenting with allowing reporters to investigate problems like corruption at the local level, there is still a ban on exposing wrongdoing by top leaders.
In Taiwan, abandonment of one-party rule was triggered in part by the need to accommodate increasingly diverse social classes during the island's economic takeoff.
China's 20-year-old market reforms, along with copying Taiwan's use of global trade to boost incomes, have fostered a small but growing middle class here, along with 1 million millionaires and an army of unemployed workers.
Yet the rise of individual enterprises and lifestyles during economic reforms is transforming the populace into "something like a chick in an eggshell, ready to become a civil society once the moment arrives," Mr. Nathan adds.
With the reemergence of "wide gaps in income levels and the stratification of society, Communist Party conservatives have pushed for a crackdown on all forms of dissent," says Ms. Thurston, co-author of the bestselling "The Private Life of Chairman Mao."
Shortly after political activist Xu Wenli said in an interview that the founding of the China Democracy Party could help smooth Taiwan's reunification with the mainland, he was sentenced to 13 years for subversion. And although some of Taiwan's leaders want to continue or formalize the island's 1949 split with the mainland, "others still want China to copy the Taiwan model of democracy," says Thurston.
On the mainland, liberals in the Communist leadership have quietly promoted the Taiwan model to ease conflicts in China's rapidly changing society, Thurston adds. For the last decade, this group has backed experiments in allowing China's 800 million peasants to choose local administrators. "Candidates in these village elections cannot form opposition parties, and criticism of the Communist leadership is forbidden, but the polls give villagers a much greater voice in choosing their leaders," says Thurston, an observer of three elections in China as part of a US delegation from the Atlanta-based Carter Center.
Several weeks ago, remote Buyun in southwestern Sichuan Province held China's first open election at the township level, which comprises several villages.
Although the state-run press has since described the event as a "secret poll" organized by renegade local officials who violated the law, a Western official says "The election could not have been held without the approval of the central authorities."
Thurston agrees, adding that in building democracy from the grass roots up, the mainland seems to be emulating Taiwan's moves toward free elections, albeit at a much slower pace. Free and fair elections for province-level officials are not even in the planning stage, and publicly calling for a democratic poll for president can be punished under state security laws.
Thurston says that China's evolution into a full-fledged democracy, if it takes place, will probably occur well into the next century. Any creation of "a loose federation or confederation between a democratic Taiwan and a democratic China could only happen in the remote future."