Beijing presses Taiwan overture

Another opposition leader arrives in Beijing Thursday. President Hu rejected an invitation to visit Taiwan.

After 10 days of an extravagant media blitz for visiting Taiwanese opposition leader Lien Chan, who heads a party kicked out of China in 1949, people on both sides of the Taiwan straits are about to get 10 more days of warm vibes.

James Soong, another party leader who hasn't been to China since boyhood, arrives Thursday to visit the ancient capital of Xian, his birthplace in Hunan, and Chinese leader Hu Jintao, who heads the Chinese Communist Party.

The trip of Mr. Soong, who was invited by Mr. Hu, appears to be part of a skillful strategy in Beijing to receive international recognition for steps that reduce tensions in Asia, create an emotionally charged moment of ethnic solidarity among the Han Chinese peoples - and at the same time undermine Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, who supports an independent Taiwan.

Mr. Chen this week tried to reclaim the initiative by giving Soong, once an implacable political enemy, a "secret message" intended for Hu. Moreover, Chen decided that with all the invitations being proferred, he would invite Chinese leader Hu to visit Taiwan.

It surprised no one when Beijing immediately rejected the idea on May 3. Despite the flowers and ribbons, Beijing authorities implied this week that any talks with Taiwan's president are impossible so long as Chen's Democratic Progressive Party continues to advocate nationhood in its charter.

"Everyone's excited about Chen's message to Hu. But I think this is just Chen changing the subject from Lien's visit," says a European diplomat here. "I don't expect too much."

Mr. Lien and Soong were co-losers to Chen by a tiny margin in bitterly contested 2004 national elections in Taiwan. The island of 23 million is a young democracy moving toward greater economic integration with China.

But as an increasingly open society, it has been drifting away from the political unity that is ardently desired by China.

Here in Beijing, Taiwan is described as part of the Chinese motherland, though many astute Chinese are aware that Taiwan has been de facto independent for decades. The US, China, and Taiwan all agree that a "status quo" position should not be changed by Taipei. But officials in each capital define status quo differently.

Lien suggested at one point in a speech in Beijing, broadcast nationally in China, that the direction Taiwan was moving in politically, in its current democratic and pro-independence phase, was a mistake.

Lien's visit was the first by a Nationalist leader to the mainland in more than 60 years. The trip, on the eve of Lien's retirement, had an aura of reconciliation as well as pomp and circumstance. Even Lien's departure was covered by national TV. Helicopter-born cameras followed the Lien car, cut to lines of honor guards, and announcers used hushed tones, suggesting a solemn occasion of great moment.

The Lien and Soong visits seem to have created some dissonance in Taiwan. More than 1,000 police were deployed to the Taipei airport this week for Lien's return to prevent the riots that took place when he left. Debates on national TV have turned ugly and tense.

"The political atmosphere here is a little crazy," says one academic reached by phone in Taipei.

Indeed, Wang Dan, the 1989 Tiananmen Square student leader, writing from Taiwan this week, said in the wake of violence at the airport that he wondered "how [the] Taiwanese people could talk so much about reconciliation with the other side of the Strait when they continue to fight so severely among themselves."

Taiwan is made up of an elite group of mainlanders who arrived in 1948 with the armies of Chiang Kai-shek, and a large ethnic Taiwanese population that has increasingly pushed to share power.

In March, China surprised the world and worried Taiwan with a tough new "anti-secession" law that looked like a rationale for a Chinese attack on Taiwan, should China so decide. Given China's desire to promote its economic growth as unthreatening in Asia as well as a push in liberal Beijing quarters to promote China's "peaceful rise," the law on Taiwan and recent anti-Japanese riots seemed to indicate that Hu was moving in an uncharted direction. But the Lien-Soong invitations suggest that Hu and his team are softening their tone toward Taiwan.

US-educated Soong is regarded in Taiwan as a highly talented politician, impatient, ambitious, and Beijing's favorite young leader inside the Kuomintang Party. In 2000, he split to form his own small party. After serious political losses in 2000 and 2004, he has forged a role as a go-between - visiting the US and now China, and for the first time discussing business with Chen.

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