TOUTING its economic success of the past 20 years, Taiwan plans soon to advance its messianic campaign to lead all of China from ox carts to disk drives, and from prison cells to voting booths.
The next step comes in March as Taiwan's National Assembly takes up the revision of the country's Constitution, enacted on mainland China 45 years ago.
Since fleeing communist forces on the mainland in 1949, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist party, has clung to the Constitution in order to justify its claim to sovereignty over all China.
To the KMT, the constitutional revisions are essential for the long-term effort to export rapid capitalist growth and democratic reform to mainland China.
The KMT is driven to "recover the mainland" by patriotism, deep cultural ties to China, and a 70-year vendetta against the communists in Beijing.
In the short term, Taipei will promote the "Taiwan model" through radio, television, and people-to-people contacts, and other forms of "public diplomacy" until it can once again freely organize on the mainland, according to a detailed government plan on mainland relations.
For the long term, a revised democratic constitution would be a touchstone for the effort to export rapid capitalist growth and democratic reform across the Taiwan Strait.
But political scientists are skeptical of the KMT's ability to fulfill its grand ambitions. They say Taiwan offers only a rough model for how to engineer democratic change among the 1.1 billion people on mainland China. Two Chinas
After 42 years of separation, the "two Chinas" are vastly different. The mainland is so large, poor, and politically undeveloped that it will not be ready for the fast reformist pace of Taiwan for several years, say political scientists in Taiwan.
Still, Taiwan has left behind useful guideposts for reformers in China, they say. Taiwan offers proof that China's ancient Confucian traditions of hierarchy, discipline, and order do not preclude democratic institutions.
Taiwan is steadily becoming an example of a "dominant-party democracy," in which a ruling party competes with the opposition but rarely, if ever, alternates with it in power, says Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University.
Japan, South Korea, and other Asian countries similarly uphold consensus and stability rather than conflict and change. They stress the importance of the group rather than the primacy of the individual, he adds.
Taiwan also identifies for China's would-be reformers the pivotal role of a middle class in democratic reform, say political scientists in Taiwan.
A literate, urban middle class has sprouted during Taiwan's prosperous times and formed labor unions and other interest groups outside government control. This large bloc has proved to be an irrepressible champion for liberal institutions, they say.
Taiwan offered its most tangible lesson in how to build democracy by impelling the economy to an average annual growth of more than 8 percent over the course of four decades, the political scientists say.
Taipei remolded the economy in the 1950s, shepherding islanders out of rice paddies and into sweatshops and small factories.
As the communists on mainland China herded farmers onto stultifying communes, Taiwan inspired the island's tenant farmers by selling them the property of wealthy landholders. The dispossessed landlords used their compensation to launch many of Taiwan's robust industries.
Taipei channeled the subsequent surge in popular aspirations into a rise in agricultural output and the manufacture of light industrial goods. The island was gradually weaned from a dependence on imports.
As a result, Taiwan retained precious foreign exchange and opened thousands of factories. It set in motion an exporting juggernaut that first rolled forward with textiles and toys, then with refrigerators and televisions, and later with electronics.
Today, Taiwan is the world's 13th largest trading power. Although Taiwanese were poorer than mainlanders in 1949, they are now more than 20 times richer, with a per capita gross national product (GNP) of $8,000.
Taiwan need not circulate its book on economic development in southern China. Converted south China
Last decade the mainland began to ease its embrace of socialist orthodoxy, release market forces, and emulate the export-driven growth of Taiwan. Southern China in particular has come to resemble the Taiwan of a few decades ago.
Guangdong Province alone accounts for one-third of China's export earnings. Its industrial output surged at an annual average of 15 percent last decade; almost two-thirds of those goods went overseas.
If such head-long growth continues, "there will be increasing pressures in south China for political liberalization on the mainland," Mr. Huntington says.
In the past 15 years the overwhelming majority of the more than 30 authoritarian countries that shifted to democracy registered a GNP per head ranging from $2,500 to $5,000, he says.
China is still far from joining this club. But Guangdong's special economic zone of Shenzhen is not far off: Its per capita GNP is $2,000. In a good year Shenzhen's industrial output increases more than 40 percent.
Beijing, although eager to strengthen the economy, is trying to crush the groundswell for liberal reform that accompanies prosperity. Popular unrest and political repression will probably worsen until Beijing recognizes that democratic reform must go along with economic development, the political scientists say. Three-stage program
Taipei acknowledges that vast differences hinder it from cultivating its model across the Taiwan Strait. Nevertheless, it is pursuing a three-stage scheme for reunification.
"In the short term, we will try to build up trust and confidence with the mainland; middle term, we'll try to narrow the gap" in the way of life between the two sides, says government spokesman Hu Chih-chiang. The third stage is reunification itself.