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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

China Puts New Focus on Taiwan

March 08, 2000|JIM MANN | Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday

WASHINGTON — The scary thing about China's recent White Paper on Taiwan is not that it means war is about to break out this year. Although China warned that it may one day use force if necessary to bring Taiwan to the negotiating table, it knows it isn't able to take Taiwan by force now.

Rather, the scary thing is China's very preoccupation with Taiwan and what that tells us about the longer-term direction of China's Communist Party leadership--that Taiwan and the cause of nationalism are becoming the linchpins of the party's claim to legitimacy inside China itself.

"Mao Tse-tung was not obsessed with Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping was not obsessed with Taiwan. Chinese leaders have only become insistent in the past few years," says University of Pennsylvania scholar Arthur Waldron. "The current leadership, which is weak, is looking to stir up patriotism to direct attention outward and to get the support of the military."

By what authority does the Chinese Communist Party rule China? It can't claim to rule through elections--the answer that can be given by a growing number of world leaders not only in the traditional democracies but in Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Iran and Indonesia.

Instead, over the last 51 years, the Chinese party leadership has offered its people a shifting series of rationales.

For Mao, the answer was simple. In Marxist theory, the Communist Party was the vanguard of the proletariat. And in practice, Mao and his colleagues were the founders of the Chinese revolution.

When Deng rose to power in 1979, he offered new answers. Deng was, like Mao, a charter member of the Communist Party's revolutionary generation. Yet Deng's claim to legitimacy was also based on the fact that he was making China prosperous--and, after the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, that he was keeping China stable.

After Deng, the revolutionary generation faded. China's current president, Jiang Zemin, looks like a guy who would have survived the Long March if he could have done it in a Mercedes.

In the late 1990s, Jiang carried forward Deng's message of prosperity and stability. But now, those bases for leadership are becoming increasingly problematic.

China's economic growth rate is declining. After the double-digit annual increases during most of the 1990s, growth will be at best 7% this year. And the economic reforms Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji are trying to make will bring layoffs, job changes and other upheaval, thus undercutting the theme of stability.

So what's next? Increasingly, the Communist Party is claiming to be the embodiment of Chinese nationalism. That's why it is incessantly telling other governments that they hurt the feelings of China's 1.3 billion people.

Jiang suggested three years ago that he would step down at the next Communist Party Congress in 2002. But it's not clear he'll carry through on this pledge.

"I think he's going to try for renewal in 2000," says former Ambassador to China James Lilley. "But the opposition [to Jiang] is also beginning to rise."

Waiting in the wings is the Communist Party's "fourth generation" of leaders. According to a study by professor Li Cheng of Hamilton College in upstate New York, this group of technocrats, lawyers and financial experts now in its 50s grew up during China's Cultural Revolution and cares even less about socialist ideology.

"The rise of nationalism [in China] is very strong," noted Li this week.

That brings us back to Taiwan. In China these days, one can find thoughtful, progressive views about Taiwan. Some scholars offer a long-term vision in which, over decades, growing economic interactions eventually bring China and Taiwan closer to one another.

Such views are scarcely reflected in China's recent White Paper on Taiwan. Yes, it contains some conciliatory language along with the warnings. Yes, tough talk is better than firing missiles. No, the paper doesn't set any deadline for regaining Taiwan.

But the undeniable reality is that China for the first time says formally that it may resort to force not only if Taiwan declares independence but also if Taiwan refuses to negotiate with China.

For years, the United States confronted a situation in which any change in the uneasy status quo between China and Taiwan might lead to war.

Now, under the White Paper, China says the status quo itself might lead to war. And the Chinese leadership seems to be developing the military power with which it might try to coerce Taiwan into a settlement in, say, seven to 10 years.

Why? China can't be afraid Taiwan is about to declare formal independence. No candidate in Taiwan's current presidential campaign is proposing to do so. So for an explanation, we need to look at the Chinese leaders themselves.

"The issue of legitimacy is the core and unspoken issue in China today," observes Waldron. "The genuine preoccupation for China over the past century has been how to come up with a genuine constitutional government. And that issue still hasn't been resolved."

So the question becomes: Do Chinese leaders need to regain Taiwan to continue to rule China?

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