China reaches deeper into Taiwan politics

Beijing is speaking more directly to Taiwanese, reversing perceptions of a mainland threat.

Half a year after top opposition Taiwan politicians Lien Chan and James Soong were feted in historic visits to Beijing, the ripple effects brought by promises of good will and trade appear to have penetrated more deeply than at first thought - intensifying political divisions and emotions in the young democracy.

Beijing is poised to use its meetings with opposition parties to gain unprecedented influence in Taiwan's domestic politics.

It is aiming messages directly at the public, aided by political forces that once fought a civil war with Mao's army. It has also offered perks to farmers in the south, traditionally an independence stronghold. China's tourism minister is visiting Taipei this week.

The state of affairs is a striking reversal of the political mood and of edgy cross-straits relations. The pro-independence government of President Chen Shui-bian appears so off-balance, say analysts, that its once-bold plan to revise the Constitution and hold a referendum seems on hold. And many Taiwanese believe that the military threat has dramatically abated, a shift noted by US and Taiwanese officials last month.

"There has been a very successful effort by Beijing to cultivate ties," notes Bonnie Glaser of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. "It is the first time China has been able to establish contacts by using very different political offices and groups around Taiwan, and the [Chen government] is finding it can't channel, control, or stop that move."

The seeming marginalization of President Chen has cooled emotions in Beijing, where hatred of Chen and his platform is palpable. In Taiwan, a fistfight erupted in the legislature last month, hinting at new partisan tensions.

Only last December, in order to intimidate those in favor of Taiwan independence, Beijing announced an "antisecession law." The law claimed a legal basis for China to attack Taiwan if the island of 23 million declared independence, as well as the right to arrest Taiwanese who promoted the island's formal status as an independent state.

The move caused an uproar. It was broadly condemned in international circles, and gave ammunition to those in Taipei who say a separate Taiwanese cultural and political identity is urgently needed. China seemed menacing and hamhanded.

Yet Beijing found other cards to play to soften that position: The visit last April by outgoing KMT leader Mr. Lien to the country of his birth, and the red carpet treatment of Lien, combined with toasts to harmony and unity, was a breakthrough for China. The visit was broadcast live in China and Taiwan - motorcades to and from the airport, tearful visits home, and meetings with top leaders, including President Hu Jintao. On Chinese TV, Lien seemed almost like Taiwan's head of state - though he, in fact, had lost the presidential election to Chen the previous spring.

After the Lien visit, and a subsequent visit by People's First Party head James Soong, the dynamics of relations seemed to change.

"China established a hearts and minds policy, and it immediately paid off," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation. "Usually, Beijing is about three years behind the curve on these matters. But this policy seems to have completely outflanked Chen Shui-bian."

Sources in Taipei say that in meetings with Taiwan's politicians, their Chinese interlocutors hinted that Taiwan could one day play an important role in myriad areas, including the future democratization of China, and its modernization. Many KMT officials seem to agree, having long felt that the world built by the former Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek is destined to again play a role on the mainland.

"What we see now is that the visits give the Communist Party direct access to exercise influence in Taiwanese political culture and society," says Andrew Yang, of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy in Taipei.

Senior officials say the new dynamics in Taiwan have yet to be tested, however, and that any political embrace of China may well backfire.

"The Lien visit and the KMT love fest in Beijing came just as the Chen government was getting on its feet last winter," says a US expert in Taipei. "It has mainly contributed to confusion here among the public."

Officials close to Chen say that the substance of meetings held in Beijing by their political rivals have been kept secret, and in many cases the identities of Chinese they met have not been disclosed.

"We asked for the official transcripts of the meetings, but we got no reply," stated Joseph Wu, head of Taiwan's mainland affairs council. "We debated whether our laws on treason apply in this case. But we decided charges would bring harm and greater chaos. We are a democracy so it is best we act like one."

Nelson Ku, a retired Navy admiral and senior People First Party legislator who went to Beijing, said that he had communicated the substance of his meetings through reporters in Taipei. But he would not be willing to brief the government on his meetings.

"I'm sorry, we can't share this with Chen Shui-bian. We don't trust him," Admiral Ku said, a point that observers say leaves the Taiwan opposition flirting with a nation pointing missiles at it, and unwilling to work with its own elected president.

Joseph Wu argues such distrust is common, and reveals a confusion about matters of loyalty to Taiwan among opposition figures: "They will fly 2,000 miles to Beijing and meet China's leaders. But they won't walk 200 meters to the president's office in Taipei to tell us what they talked about."

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