How deep is China-Taiwan thaw?

A Taiwan policy speech last week suggests an emerging generational split in Beijing's leadership.

Some call it a "breakthrough," an "about face." Others say it shows a "new realism" by China's next generation of leaders. Still others feel a recent opening by China to Taiwan is a mere interlude of good weather prior to US President George Bush's first state visit here next month.

How seriously the world should take recent warming statements by China on its frigid relations with Taiwan is a subject China hands have parsed for a week now.

Yet even while doing so, a major address on Taiwan by China's top diplomat now appears to have caused the first major rift between new and old leaders in Beijing - considered highly unusual in a country known for protocol and for zealously presenting a unified front.

Observers found it significant that both Vice President Hu Jintao and Zeng Qinghong, rumored to be China's No. 1 and No. 2 in a coming leadership change, were on the podium last week as China's most respected diplomat, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, gave a speech suggesting a more flexible position on Taiwan, regarded as the top "flashpoint" in East Asia.

In a sharp break from the past, Mr. Qian invited members of Taiwan's ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP) to China for informal talks, for "sightseeing, to visit in an appropriate status, and to increase understanding." Until last week, Beijing had scarcely even acknowledged that the proindependence DPP even existed.

"Clearly, this was a new position that Hu is behind," says one European-based Beijing scholar, referring to the vice president, who is expected to take charge after the 16th Party Congress next fall. "But [Chinese president] Jiang is not."

Yesterday, a tense flurry of retractions and clarifications, evidently ordered by President Jiang, were issued in official organs, including the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po. Mr. Jiang was reportedly furious at the attempt last week to tactically soften China's policy on Taiwan.

"The one-China policy is our bottom line," said Taiwan Affairs spokesman Zhang Mingqing, in a special press briefing designed to nullify perceptions that Qian's speech represented any change.

Mr. Zhang stated that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, whose pro-independence views are hated in China, is not welcome in Beijing, "since he has not stopped his separatist activities."

China and Taiwan are in a 53-year standoff so slow-moving, intricate, and obsessed with "face saving" that their mutually icy diplomacy often requires a semantic kung fu artist to fathom it. China says Taiwan is part of the Chinese "motherland," even while Taiwan pays tens of millions of dollars annually for US weapons to keep China at bay. The issue is deeply emotional on both sides of the missile-studded Taiwan straits coastline.

Progress on both sides requires that neither side appear to have "changed its principled stand," says one scholar.

Tensions heightened during the 1990s when Taiwan started dropping historic claims on China that dated to the Chinese civil war, and began a rhetoric of independence.

Yet while drawing increasingly closer economically to China, Taiwan has moved further away in its political identity. In the spring of 2000, as leader of the DPP party, Mr. Chen was elected president. The party had independence written into its constitution, and China took a hard-line position toward the election.

China refused to recognize the DPP, disallowed officials to use President Chen's name in public, and continued to insist that only a "small handful" of disgruntled islanders were behind the DPP.

Yet a crucial election this past Dec. 1, when the DPP gained a stronghold in Taiwan's parliament, seemed to puncture illusions that Mr. Chen was a flash-in-the-pan president, or the DPP a fly-by-night party.

To observers of China, then, Qian's recent policy speech was widely seen as Beijing's response, after a virtual silence, to political changes in Taiwan.

Qian's gravitas, combined with the presence of Mr. Hu and Jiang's closest protégé, Zeng Qinghong, made it appear a first move by a new generation was underway into China's most sensitive issue: Taiwan.

Hu's ideas have been a mystery for many years, but backing Qian's speech suggests a progressive bent by the rumored future leader.

Qian's speech, moreover, seemed to create a glimmer of hope for future talks, not out of a new friendliness, but in a pragmatic recognition that - though Beijing may not like it - Taiwan's ruling party is a force to be reckoned with on the island.

"This is indeed a breakthrough," says Rick Baum, a China expert at UCLA, commenting earlier this week on Qian's speech. "It reflects Beijing's growing recognition that neither the DPP nor Chen Shui-bian are temporary aberrations ... but rather represent the genuine aspirations of a growing number of Taiwanese people."

China has long demanded that Taiwan agree to a "one-China principle" prior to any talks between the two sides. Taiwan has looked upon that formula as a nonstarter - since it requires the island to cede any right to choose its own status before talks begin.

Qian's speech, while affirming "one China," seemed to imply there might be ways for the two sides to engage in dialogue short of that precondition.

"The speech does not break with the 'one-China principle,' " says John Holden, president of the National Committee on US-China relations, "but it is careful not to specify exactly what Chen must do or say to move things forward.... I see some opportunities in the language ... [for Chen] to get back into some sort of dialogue with Beijing.

Yet this week's tempest in Beijing over Qian's speech shows a wide chasm between hardliners and moderates. In contrast with Qian's speech, for example, China this fall, in the wake of the Sept. 11 "war on terrorism," floated a very different rhetorical trial balloon - arguing that Taiwan's "separatism" represented a form of terrorism in the region.

Whether or not China is engineering a new era in relations with Taiwan, or is only filling the honey pot for President Bush's trip, as Beijing has often done with previous visiting US heads of state, was the question being asked in diplomatic circles until yesterday. Now, with an apparent Chinese backpedal, US officials are wondering just what the Taiwan policy is, and how strong those quarters are in Beijing that evidently want a different approach.

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