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Bridging the Two Chinas

It's Time Taiwan and the People's Republic Stopped Sparring

By Xiaomeng Tong

The following might be just too horrifying and dangerous for some to depict in their minds. But the folks at the Harvard Model Security Council summarize it all in a grim joke: "China invades Taiwan. You are Taiwan. Your choices--swim, or go buy a Mao suit?"

It sounds true enough. Between these two worlds, separated only by a narrow strait, you have the biggest political, economic and social disparity imaginable. It's more than an island against-mainland matter. It's capitalism against communism. Freedom against control. And, above all, a population of 21 million against 1.2 billion. It would be no exaggeration for the mainlanders to claim, which some of them once did out of envy and hostility, that if each of the 1.2 billion residents in the People's Republic of China (PRC) spit into the Taiwan Strait, the island of Taiwan would be submerged. Infuriated by Taiwan President Lee Tung-hui's successful odyssey back to his alma mater. Cornell, communist leaders in the PRC conducted two missile tests in the summer and have launched endless verbal attacks in media. In fact, some outside observers believe them to be warning Chiang Kai-shek's heirs not to play with fire, unless they would feel comfortable swimming all the way to the United States for protection.

There seems to exist every reason to foresee a crisis in a tacit, longtime, mutual appeasement. Forty five years ago, because of the military intervention of the United States, Mao Zedong, reluctantly gave up his ruthless ambition of sparing none. Across the strait, Chiang Kai-shek thought the same. After spending some time interpreting Mao's "mercy," Chiang also subdued his obsession of recapturing the mainland, and his dream of visiting his hometown one more time gradually faded away. With the United States in between, relative peace was achieved out of a forced balance of explosive tension.

During the height of the Cold War, when the West shifted its attention and chose to ally with Beijing to counter the Soviet Union, Taiwan quietly and almost totally withdrew itself from the international scene. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the PRC began to regain its confidence in playing a major role in global affairs, using mainly its physical power drawn from vast land and a huge population to impress the world as some tough guy whom you might hate but just can't ignore. In the meantime, Taiwan broke away from the illusion of fighting back, nearly stopped calling itself "Republic of China" in public and instead placed the focal point on its domestic development. And before long the economic performances of this "Little Dragon" were magnificent enough to wipe out its people's memory of the humiliating military defeat in 1949 by Mao's Red Army.

Then everything suddenly became different. The power changed hands. As the world's 20th largest economy, Taiwan started to feel justified asking for more things to compensate for, its ill-represented status. Worldwide recognition was definitely the first and foremost goal to attain, for how can Taiwan continue to grow without an identity, a spirit or even a proper official name that won't cause confusion at the Olympic Games? Giving up its United Nations membership in 1971 is still considered the greatest shame by the island's politicians, who find their own territory by all means an independent state with its economic strength and democratic reform. In the late '80s, it looked like the right time to earn it back legitimately. After all, it is just not fair to leave such a prominent and prosperous member out in the cold, begging to be let in.

But think again before you make the move, President Lee. Remember how Taiwan first got kicked out of the international community? Communist China's impact is still all over the place and is getting stronger day by day. One of the many fundamental facts which distinguishes a true, typical Chinese communist from the rest of human kind is that the former absolutely hates losing face. If need be, the Communist would try to save face at unnecessary costs, and those who fail to predict this aspect of his or her personality would be terribly wrong. There are ample examples the earliest one dating back to the Korean War in 1950, when a newly founded and poorly-equipped China fearlessly fought against America to prove communism as the ultimate source of determination and will-power.

Although the country had been slowly moving itself onto a track of more consistency and temperance of more consistency and temperance ever since, it relentlessly broke the Western analysts' dream of "peaceful transformation" by perpetrating the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In that episode, some of the top officials, including Premier Li Peng, were embarrassed when the students on the streets deliberately turned a deaf car to their orders--something regarded as intolerable by China's patriarchs. Guns and blood make clear a "they-can-always-go-back-if-they-want-to" conclusion, and the lesson to be learned here is, "Don't push them too hard or they'll go wild."

If President Lee Tung-hui and Taiwan were to cross the borderline, who can tell what would arise. Missile tests and rhetorical charges may just be the beginning. In case he failed to understand this from his brief experience as a Communist Party member himself when he was young. President Lee should always keep in mind, that the word "unpredictability" in some ways best describes mainland China's governmental policies throughout its short history as the People's Republic.

For the past decade Taiwan has been passionately pursuing a so-called "pragmatic diplomacy," which so far has achieved little effects except in a few small countries in Latin America and West Africa. Tens of millions of dollars flow out of the lonely island every year for almost nothing. The only real success came after Taiwan half-bribed the U.S. Congress and President Clinton into granting President Lee an opportunity to deliver a moving speech at Cornell University, which, however, has turned out to be a bigger trouble for Taiwan than either. Taiwan or the United States would expect. And just like before, it was again denied the right of rejoining the U.N. this year.

The relationship between mainland China and Taiwan has always been a strange one. Chinese leaders like to portray China and Taiwan as father and son, while President Lee terms the two republics as brothers. A top government official from Taiwan has an even more vivid description--a divorced couple, with the husband forcing the ex-wife to remarry him and keeping her from dating other guys. No matter how we try to see through this awkward relationship from different perspectives, one thing should be clear: nobody wants a war. Therefore, both sides should stay calm and face the reality. Especially for Taiwan, with its relatively passive position, a slightly less provocative diplomatic policy would certainly do a better job than the current one. It doesn't make sense to continue to spend more and more money buying empty promises from small Latin American countries, further annoying the Taiwanese people. And it should also realize that heavy reliance on the U.S. could sometimes lead to flawed political decisions, assuming that the U.S. learned its lessons during the Vietnamese War.

By far one of the biggest investors in mainland China and Southeast Asia, Taiwan should go on to influence the world using its economic might instead of focusing only on a U.N. seat. By assisting the economic development in these countries, Taiwan would gradually gain the support it seeks and responses from the mainland would not be too angry when it carefully takes a little step forward in the pursuit of nationalism. Mainland China, on the other hand, should also put the emphasis on domestic growth, bearing in mind that antagonism does little good. After all, if in the future China replaces the U.S. as the world's superpower, it might be the Taiwanese government that would eagerly talk about a reunification across the strait. By that time, hopefully, the Taiwanese won't have to wear Mao suits.

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