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CHINA: THE GIANT AWAKENS : The Neighbors : Taiwan, Four Other Nations Take Stock of China

June 15, 1993|David Holley

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Vice Foreign Minister Chen Hsi-fan was 15 years old when he fled advancing Communist armies on the Chinese mainland to seek refuge here.

For 44 years since then, the Nationalist Party has ruled Taiwan, and the Communist Party has ruled the mainland. The British govern Hong Kong, which reverts to Beijing's control in 1997, and the Portuguese rule Macao, which returns to Chinese sovereignty in 1999. In Chen's personal view and that of the rival governments in both Taipei and Beijing, all these places are parts of the same China.

"We believe that there is one China," Chen said in a recent interview. "But please don't identify this China with the PRC (People's Republic of China). The China we mean is the cultural, the geographic and the historical China, including Taiwan. Therefore Taiwan is part of China, just as the mainland is part of China.

"We further believe that the country of China will be one day reunited under a government of freedom, democracy and free enterprise. . . . As events have indicated in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, communism is dying, collapsing. We believe the same will happen in China. This is a clearly tenable goal. But it may take some time. I cannot tell you how many years it will take. But I firmly believe I can see it in my lifetime."

While many people in Taiwan feel, like Chen, that all China should one day be united, virtually no one here wants to be ruled by Communists from Beijing. For the 20 million people of Taiwan and their government, the more immediate problem is not how to achieve ultimate reunification but rather how to maintain de facto independence.

The core of Taiwan's approach to this dilemma is what some observers have described as an attempt to become "more kissable but less marriageable."

On the one hand, Taipei is conducting increasingly friendly interchanges with Beijing. These include a historic meeting in Singapore in April that produced an unprecedented set of accords promoting economic ties and establishing a framework for future contacts. Conducted between semiofficial organizations, these were the highest-level talks between the two sides since the late 1940s.

While Taiwan still bars direct trade with the mainland, indirect trade hit about $7.4 billion last year, and direct or indirect investment in the mainland reached between $7 billion and $8 billion, according to Taiwan's estimates. Both trade and investment are expected to be up sharply in 1993.

At the same time, the Nationalists are beefing up their defenses, with a big assist from former President George Bush's decision last year to approve the sale of 150 F-16 jet fighters to Taiwan, despite an earlier American promise to Beijing to gradually reduce weapons sales to the island.

"Regardless of whether you're native-born Taiwanese or from the mainland, people here generally feel that the most important thing is to avoid military conflict in the Taiwan Strait," said Chen Yu-chun, a political scientist at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. "I always feel that peace and the goal of prosperity is most important both for Taiwan and the mainland. . . .

"Most Taiwan businessmen believe that in the future, Taiwan's economy will depend a great deal on mainland China," the political scientist added. "In the near future--maybe 10 or 20 years--if the reform and open-door policy continues in mainland China, and political stability is maintained, at that time China's economy will become the engine (for further growth) of the Asia-Pacific economies."


This process has already begun, he said, as Taiwanese firms, buffeted by rising labor costs and growing public concern for environmental protection, feel they are losing their international competitiveness. "If production can be moved to the Chinese mainland, they will have a stronger competition capability," he said.

A cloud over the future, however, is the risk that missteps by Taiwan could trigger military action by Beijing, he added.

A large faction within the opposition Democratic Progressive Party believes that Taiwan should remain permanently free of mainland control and that in order to do this, it should proclaim itself to be the independent Republic of Taiwan.

Beijing has repeatedly threatened use of force if Taiwan declares itself independent.

"This possibility can't be ruled out," the educator commented. "Because if there's an election, and the Nationalist Party loses, and the Democratic Progressive Party takes power and is determined to declare independence, then the possibility (of conflict) is very great."

In the short term, the debate in Taiwan over mainland policy is primarily one of how best to stay free of Beijing's grasp. But in the very long run, many people genuinely believe in reunification.

Vice Foreign Minister Chen explained his own personal reasons for favoring ultimate reunification: "I want to be a citizen of a big country. That's why, number one. Number two, I'm a Chinese. Number three, historically, there has been only one China. Any temporary division was only temporary--that's the education that we have received: that we are Chinese, there is only one China. Even though the country is divided, it's temporary. China has a long history. We don't think 40 years is long."

Prof. Chen, 42, said he doesn't expect reunification during his lifetime.

"Taiwan is under one government, and the mainland is under another government. The important thing is for both sides to live together peacefully, cooperate and develop. . . . Perhaps it's better for the next generation to solve this problem."

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