The cynicism that for so long has colored public attitudes toward politics and government in Taiwan has begun to fade a little in recent weeks. The reason is that several actions by the ruling Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) have signaled a new flexibility both toward the Kuomintang's domestic political opposition and toward the rival Communist government in Peking.
Even some of Taiwan's most committed opposition leaders have said they were pleasantly surprised by decisions taken last month to permit them to open offices in Taipei and other cities and to hold talks with mainland officials on the return of a hijacked airliner and two crew members. These ``breakthroughs'' have enlivened public discussion of issues that have been muted for many years, though it is not clear what the new developments portend for the future.
``Taiwan is changing very fast and no one knows where it's heading,'' said Lin Chang-chieh, an opposition politician and member of the Taipei city council.
Among private citizens, discussion of the issues has a new urgency now that the Kuomintang has openly acknowledged by its actions that it has options for altering the political status quo at home and for dealing with the stalemate with Peking.
``The whole ecology of Asian politics has changed, and Taiwan is not isolated from events in the Philippines and South Korea,'' one schoolteacher commented, indicating some of the international pressures on the government.
``Yes, but the Kuomintang is more clever than Marcos,'' a political activist said. ``It has made concessions which only will permit the opposition to let off steam.''
These concessions were the Kuomintang's first-ever meetings, held early last month, with the opposition groups known as ``Tangwai'' and its decision to permit the Tangwai Public Policy Association to open branch offices. The Tangwai, which is a loose association of opposition groups, is still not permitted to organize political parties as such, but some observers say that the Kuomintang's concession on branch offices could lead in that direction.
Taiwan oppositionists point out that, despite the conciliatory gestures of the Kuomintang toward its domestic challengers, the authorities still regularly confiscate and ban opposition magazines and recently imprisoned two opposition leaders, Huang Tian-fu and Cheng Hsueh-bian. The government also cracked down on a demonstration by opposition groups May 19, the 38th anniversary of martial law in Taiwan.
``They are just throwing crumbs to the opposition -- the Kuomintang has good control of the situation,'' the political activist said.
Another breakthrough was the talks held in Hong Kong May 17-19 between officials of Taiwan's China Airlines and Peking's CAAC about the return of a hijacked cargo plane and crew members. A China Airlines Boeing 747 had been flown to the mainland by a disaffected pilot, who remains there reunited with his father and three elder brothers. His crew, however, wanted to return home. The hijacking incident brought the first direct talks between the rival Nationalist and Communist governments since 1949.
``I think more contact between Taiwan and the mainland will help eliminate the possibility of war,'' the schoolteacher said. ``The government says this is a special case, but one case can encourage a general attitude. It's not a single case, it's a beginning.''
``In ordinary times, it's OK to have a `three no's policy,' '' a magazine editor commented, referring to the Kuomintang's policy of ``no contacts, no negotiations, no compromise'' with the Peking government. ``But when lives are at stake, they can't declare a `three no's policy' -- otherwise, people will think the Kuomintang is useless,'' the editor added.
Many Taiwan citizens agree that the government's decision was a humane action that reduced tension and showed a reasonableness on the part of the ruling party. A newspaper poll conducted just after the talks indicated that 75 percent of those polled were ``satisfied'' with the results of the discussions, though -- despite the talks -- 42 percent said that the government had not changed its three-no's policy.
Observers point out that last month's breakthroughs were far from voluntary concessions. They were the outcome of political pressures on the Kuomintang both from developments within Taiwan and from without, including a push from several prominent members of the United States Congress to speed up democratization in Taiwan and renewed concern about the government's treatment of political prisoners.
In the meantime, some Taiwan citizens say the Kuomintang is merely buying time while it tries to outmaneuver an increasingly bold but badly fragmented opposition that is gearing up for an election late this year. The ruling party also is looking for ways to steal the initiative from Peking in the Communists' campaign to gain control over Taiwan. And it is ruminating over the successor to President Chiang Ching-kuo and a slow economic growth rate that has endangered Taiwan's ``economic miracle.''