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Redefining the One-China Policy: Can a Federation Work?

September 29, 1996|Ross Terrill | Ross Terrill has written six books on China including "China in Our Time" (Simon & Schuster) and "Mao" (Touchstone Books). He has visited China regularly since 1964, and Taiwan since 1970

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — One achievement no one denies to Mao Tse-tung was that he united China. His socialist schemes may have fallen apart like bean curd turned out of its dish, but he pulled the country together in 1949, after decades of civil war, warlords and foreign intrusion. He persuaded Josef Stalin, and then Richard M. Nixon, to accept that he was the boss of one China.

Each time a flap occurs between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan, the State Department and White House assure Beijing that our one-China policy is unchanged. We did it in the aftermath of Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States last year. We do it each time a U.S. official receives the Dalai Lama. We did it this month, when a top Treasury official raised eyebrows by visiting Taipei. Washington has been attached to one China at least since Nixon, in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, acknowledged that "all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait" upheld one China.

But it may be time for a second look. One China is an ideal, not a reality. Its prospects for realization seem threatened by developments both inside China and beyond. A young, well-connected Chinese said in Beijing recently, "The Chinese Communist party has a choice. It can die by not reforming. Or it can die by reforming." One scenario for the latter is if Deng Xiaoping's encouragement of a free market produces a strong middle class that demands competitive politics. Another is if successful economic reform loosens Beijing's grip on the booming southeast coast and the restive non-Chinese west.

"One country, two systems," says Beijing of its plans for Taiwan and Hong Kong. Some other parts of China like the idea for themselves, as well.

"Unity" often lies in the eye of the beholder. Chinese called World War I "The European civil war"--from distant Beijing, Europe was seen as one entity. Today, a Westerner visiting Tibet could excused for doubting he was in China. In Singapore or parts of Bangkok, he may think he was in China.

For about half its history, China has had multiple governments. For several lengthy periods, both a southern and a northern regime existed. The Ming Dynasty (14th-17th centuries), the last one of Chinese race, ruled an area about one-third of today's China. It was Manchu rulers (17th-20th centuries), not Chinese, who expanded this to approximate the size of China. Sun Yat-sen, a hero in both Beijing and Taiwan, was a southern rebel who went north and overthrew a Beijing regime.

The idea of "one China" grips Chinese minds, just as "liberty" grips the minds of the French, and the "American Dream" grips U.S. minds.

The idea of China is like the idea of the British Empire. Both China and the British Empire, as physical entities, grew or shrank over time. Before, during and after India was ruled by Britain, the idea of the British Empire existed. Taiwan, Tibet and other "parts of China" have gone back and forth from rule by Beijing. Often in the Manchu Dynasty, there was "China proper" (zhongguo benbu), ruled by Beijing, and "Outer China" (fanshu), mostly non-Chinese areas like Tibet that had only a loose relation to the emperor in Beijing. Meanwhile, the idea of China endured.

Many of the economic reforms under Deng are the best thing that have happened to the Chinese people since 1949. But reform is a double-edged sword when it comes to the unity of a realm of 1.2 billion people. Deng's cry, "To get rich is glorious" has united the Chinese around the task of economic development. But the dismantling of the command economy also drains power away from Beijing.

Beijing scratches for revenue. Prosperous southern provinces, laden with investment funds from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, rake in taxes and fees they are reluctant to share with the bureaucrats of Beijing. The spirit of south China is confident, commercial, oriented to the ocean; north China is wary, political, turned in on the Middle Kingdom.

Deng's China has pursued economic reform, which the Soviet Union failed to do, but not political reform, which the Soviet Union tackled--and died from. The demise of the Soviet Union suggests the link that exists between autocracy and empire. As Moscow liberalized, its grip on Ukraine, the Baltics and the rest weakened. Deng watched--and learned.

Over the years, the logic of economic reform has repeatedly put political reform on Beijing's agenda, only to see Deng's fear of national disunity pull it off. One reason why Deng's chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, fell (in 1987 and 1989 respectively) was that they nibbled at political reform.

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