Ancient Roots of China Diaspora Tapped in Push for Unity

Beijing rediscovers its pre-communist past to draw closer to Taiwan and Hong Kong

Despite an ongoing war of words pitting Beijing's Communist leaders against independence activists in Taiwan and democrats in Hong Kong, cultural contacts across the three parts of "greater China" are burgeoning.

A skyrocketing number of visits to the mainland by residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan are not only reuniting families, but also are helping underline common traditions and beliefs that bind ethnic Chinese across ideological boundaries.

Tycoons in the capitalist enclaves of Taiwan and Hong Kong - some of whom fled from the advancing Red Army during the Chinese civil war a half century ago - are now financing the restoration of ancient Chinese art and temples once destroyed by Communist radicals on the mainland.

"Chinese nationalism is replacing Communist fervor within China," says Huang Yasheng, a fellow at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., "and in the process is uniting overseas Chinese to protect their common culture."

But other scholars say the cultural network crisscrossing "greater China" is being exploited by some who seek greater power as much as rediscovery of ancient roots. Chinese civilization dates back several millennia. Ties of a common ancestry, a written language, art, and a Confucian belief system are being highlighted by government and business elites to bridge gulfs separating mainland China from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Signs of a renewed pan-Chinese culture are everywhere:

*Taiwanese make about 1 million visits to the mainland each year.

*Cross-border visits between Hong Kong and China in 1996 are estimated at 60 million, double the 30 million trips made six years earlier.

*Jointly produced films and television programming draw on talent from, and are shown in, diverse sections of greater China.

*Chinese language sites on the Internet foster dialogue between Chinese regardless of their political outlook or nationality.

*Nouveaux riches in Taiwan and Hong Kong have funded projects such as a memorial in central Shaanxi Province to China's legendary Yellow Emperor, who is said to have ruled 5,000 years ago. Communist Party Politburo member Li Ruihuan presided over the unveiling of the monument.

Classes in the 'common language'

In Hong Kong, where British colonial rule gives way to Chinese sovereignty in less than six months, interest in the roots of Chinese culture is high among university students and business people.

Nearly every street corner features advertisements for classes on putonghua, the "common language" spoken by most of China's 1.2 billion citizens. Cantonese and English, Hong Kong's dominant languages, are unintelligible to most mainlanders.

At Hong Kong University's art museum, a new exhibit on Chinese works dating back to before the rise of the Roman Empire focuses on the Orient's earliest advanced civilization. Cultural officials from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Taiwan jointly opened the exhibition, and all praised the rebirth of Chinese national pride.

Hong Kong millionaire T.T. Tsui, who funded the event and contributed to the collection, says he hopes the exhibit will help in "unifying the Chinese people and promoting cultural exchanges."

The tycoon, who also financed the museum's T.T. Tsui Building, added that retracing the artistic and literary creations of Chinese throughout the ages could help Hong Kong and the mainland move forward together into the 21st century.

Curator Anita Wong says that "T.T. Tsui has very good relations with China and Taiwan, and wants to promote Chinese art no matter where it's from."

Mr. Tsui's generosity of spirit appears to be unusual in light of his background. At the age of 9, Tsui and his capitalist father fled to Hong Kong as communist troops occupied Shanghai. When the family's cotton mills and factories were nationalized and his father died, 13-year-old Tsui made a living selling dumplings on the streets of Hong Kong.

But later in life, Tsui would profit from virtually every political twist and turn in Beijing.

He made a fortune in real estate following the outbreak of the 1960s Cultural Revolution in China, when radical Red Guards followed Chairman Mao Zedong's orders to wipe out China's "feudal past" by razing Buddhist temples, beating Confucian scholars, and confiscating traditional paintings.

Mao's turmoil caused property prices in Hong Kong to plummet, and Tsui began buying real estate.

The same strategy held true in the aftermath of the Chinese Army's march on Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. While many Hong Kong investors sold their stock or real estate holdings on the island, Tsui bought at deflated prices and has seen his wealth skyrocket.

He has since moved some subsidiaries across the border to China's Guangdong Province, where labor costs are low, and made other moves to consolidate his ties with the mainland.

Several years ago, Tsui sponsored a showing in Hong Kong by artist Deng Lin, daughter of supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, and he has donated part of his own collection to Shanghai's new museum.

Some Chinese scholars say that Tsui's forays into the Chinese art market are aimed not only at promoting traditional culture, but also his role as a powerbroker.

They add that the support of figures like Tsui adds to the Communist Party's legitimacy, which was battered by its handling of pro-democracy protests eight years ago, and to Beijing's appeal in Taiwan and Hong Kong. "Tsui is now one of Beijing's most trusted advisers on Hong Kong affairs," says a Chinese intellectual with high-level government contacts.

Seeking rewards - now and later

Tsui has built a traditional courtyard house just outside the Forbidden City in central Beijing, in an area long reserved for China's aristocracy that is just blocks from from Communist Party headquarters.

Tsui uses the palace-like building "to throw extravagant parties for high-level Chinese officials," says the intellectual.

A Chinese university lecturer says that "many Taiwanese and Hong Kong businessmen have poured money into restoring Buddhist or Confucian temples.

"Some of the benefactors genuinely want to foster the rebirth of Chinese civilization or hope for recognition in the afterlife," he says. "But others want their reward from grateful Communist Party officials in this life."

Yet indisputably Tsui and his fellow tycoons have helped rejuvenate Chinese traditions and forge contacts among cultural, economic, and political elites in the disparate areas of greater China. His support for the Hong Kong University museum has succeeded in "bringing together curators from the mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong" and generating interest among Chinese youths of every stripe in their common history, says museum curator Ms. Wong.

Visits to the museum by university students and the general public have increased fourfold to 2,000 monthly.

Tsui says he hopes to see Chinese culture act as an Asia-wide "centripetal force" that brings harmony into the sphere of not only art, but also politics.

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