Leaders of the Chinese Communist and Taiwanese Nationalist parties, whose two sides were enjoined in one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars of the last century, meet Friday in Beijing for the first time in more than 60 years.
Taiwan opposition leader Lien Chan, standard bearer of the Kuomintang Party that was epically driven out of China in 1949, is in Beijing at the invitation of President Hu Jintao. The event seems part of an emotional appeal to Chinese ethnic identity that is designed to isolate Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, whose pro-independence government is deeply hated in Beijing.
Mr. Lien, accordingly, has been treated for three days in China like a visiting head of state, despite the fact that he lost last year's election in Taiwan to Mr. Chen. Lien's visits to Nanjing, former capital of the Nationalists, and to his hometown of Xi'an, have been replete with red-carpet greetings, temple visits, fawning crowds, traditional Chinese rituals, hundreds of Asian media, and front-page photos.
Because of protocol, Hu will meet Lien not as president of China, but as party leader to party leader. Later, Lien will give a nationally televised speech at Beijing University, an honor recently accorded to Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush. He has even reportedly been promised two panda bears for the Taipei zoo.
Friday's cross-straits handshake is the highest level meet and greet since October, 1945. The meaning of the visit is widely speculated upon by experts; and it brought nasty fistfights at the Taipei airport prior to Lien's flight out. Some analysts say Lien was invited to Beijing to exploit political divisions in Taiwan, that the visit is a betrayal of Taipei's hard-won political aspirations, and that Lien's proper role as representative of a Chinese democracy is to advocate an open society and human rights in Beijing.
Since the late-1990s, Taiwan, located 95 miles off China's coast, has cast off the autocratic rule of the Nationalists and nurtured a vibrant though infant multiparty democracy whose ruling party champions a "Taiwanese identity" distinct from a Chinese ethnic identity. China claims Taiwan and its 23 million "compatriots" as its own.
Antonio Chiang, an influential former member of Taiwan's National Security Council, argues that Lien's visit is potentially divisive: "A divided Taiwan might not be a positive element for Taiwan independence, but neither it is good for [eventual] unification with China."
A more optimistic reading is that Lien, who is set to retire in July after losing presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, can push Beijing to think differently about Taiwan.
In this view, Lien wants a legacy of engagement with the mainland for his country. "The major purpose of Lien's trip is to get Beijing to acknowledge Taiwan's existence as an effective government," says Andrew Yang of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy in Taipei. "Lien is saying [to Beijing] 'We exist!' Beijing needs to offer Taiwan some political recognition before there is a resolution of differences."
Strife between Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and Communists led by Mao Zedong runs through Chinese modern history like a huge roiling river. The last meeting between the two dates to a failed American attempt to stop the resumption of a civil war that had only been delayed to drive out the Japanese. American envoy Patrick Hurley guaranteed safe passage to Mao for a six-week meeting in Chongqing.
Ironically at the time Mao was not thinking in terms of controlling all China. Records show Mao would have accepted a coalition government and cessation of military action in exchange for a free hand in North China. Yet Generalissimo Chiang was so confident of US backing, and of his role in Chinese history, that he dismissed all compromises. A final communique in Oct. 1945 masked over colossal disagreements, Mr. Hurley resigned shortly after, and four years later, Mao drove Chang off the mainland to Taiwan.
A meeting between Hu and Lien may help soften China's recent profile in Asia, analysts say. In recent months, the regional atmosphere has gotten slightly uneasy. Just last month, the People's Congress in China passed a hard-edged "anti-secession" law aimed at Taiwan that was widely seen as a possible pretext someday for a military attack across the Taiwan straits. This month, Beijing appeared to allow, if not encourage, mobs of egg- throwing anti-Japanese protesters to run through its usually well-policed urban streets.
Yet Hu's willingness to host the leader of the Nationalists from Taiwan, which allows talk about the greater Chinese family, and economic integration, may allow Hu to present his country in a better light. One new rallying point during the upcoming May 1 state holidays, in fact, will be the common ground represented by the figure of Sun Yat-sen, whom both sides accept as the founder of modern China. In recent years, one by one, the posters of Stalin, Lenin, Engels, and Marx that used to appear at May 1 celebrations on Tiananmen Square have been replaced by Dr. Sun.
"Lien and Hu are offering a simple message - that we are all Chinese and we all want to live in a modern state founded by Sun Yat Sen," says one Beijing scholar. "Coming after the antisecession law, Hu's tactics appear similar to [former Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping's tactics. You first act tough and threaten, then you offer something sweet."
Phone interviews of 1,000 urban Chinese by a former state-run agency, the Social Survey Institute of China, found that 81 percent of the respondents say the news of Lien's visit has filled the mainland with "warm feelings," and "enabled the general public to see the hope of peaceful cross-strait reunification."
On May 5, another leading Taiwanese politician arrives in Beijing: James Soong of the small People First Party. Mr. Soong, Lien's running mate last year, has often been viewed as an ardent supporter of Beijing and its unification agenda.