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Beijing's 'Salesman' Makes Offer of Hong Kong 'Plus'

Elder statesman Wang Daohan moves China's line in a softer direction, inviting step-by-step shifts from Taiwan.

May 03, 2000|TOM PLATE

SHANGHAI — Tea leaves can be hard to read, especially when they come from a mainland Chinese garden. Since the March election of the former Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian as president of Taiwan, worried China-watchers have been looking for the faintest signal from Beijing, even a twitch, that China really isn't prepared to go on the warpath over Taiwan's status. But after a quick propaganda tantrum or two, Beijing has more or less kept silent on the issue. Now, just two weeks away from the inauguration of Chen as the successor to President Lee Teng-hui, the official silence has, more or less, been broken.

For almost a decade, the president of China's Assn. for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits has been an 85-year-old former mayor of Shanghai, Wang Daohan. He is known to have the intimate ear of China's President Jiang Zemin, his successor in Shanghai's city hall. In fact, Wang is something of a legend in his native China: He is a world diplomat with international standing who retains substantial influence in Beijing and whose views are sought after by foreign diplomats.

Hospitalized for months, and deterred from making comments about the Taiwan issue because of the big chill that has enveloped the mainland in the run-up to the May 20 inauguration, Wang has been quiet. So when a three-page, single-spaced fax memo from Wang recently arrived, in lieu of the personal interview that his hospitalization had prevented him from giving me, I pored over it for clues about China's true Taiwan bottom line. For if Beijing were to modify its seemingly implacable stand that Taiwan must join the mainland fold on its terms or else, it is thought in the West that the first sense of this would come from Wang.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 10, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 9 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Plate column--In Tom Plate's May 3 column, a dropped quotation mark seemed to attribute this statement to China's Wang Daohan: "In fact, it looks as if Beijing will start to put out the line that [Taiwan President] Chen [Shui-bian] is not the bad guy, but his predecessor was. This turn in the diplomatic road could indeed be a very good sign." In fact, these are Plate's words.

In his replies to my six questions, translated into English by his staff, Wang scarcely abandons Beijing's repeated insistence on Taiwan's fidelity to the "one China" principle, and scolds Chen for resisting abject obeisance to the "one China" concept. But, admits Wang, "it may take time for him to do so," and, he further admits, it is certainly true that since his election, Chen has "shown some differences from his campaign platform." He notes explicitly and approvingly that the new Taiwan leader has agreed "not to amend the constitution, not to hold [a] referendum, not to change the title of Taiwan, and not to declare independence," adding up to, as Wang puts it, Taiwan's "Four Nots." Of course, says Wang, almost as if to cover his flank, "This is the minimum he must do."

Wang's tone throughout the memo is patient: "In the long run, the prospects of the cross-Straits relations are bright," he writes. "The people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are Chinese. The exchanges, economic ties and interdependence across the Taiwan Straits will continue to develop, and the common cultural bonds and psychological identity of the Chinese are inseparable. In fact, it looks as if Beijing will start to put out the line that Chen is not the bad guy, but his predecessor was.

"This turn in the diplomatic road could indeed be a very good sign: Owing to the obstruction by separatist forces represented by Lee Teng-hui, with the support of certain international anti-China forces, the cross-Straits political dialogue and reunification process have come to a deadlock. This is a temporary phenomenon."

Wang has long been associated with a more nuanced negotiating position toward Taiwan than, say, the People's Liberation Army. But with Chen's inauguration so close, Wang's lack of rancor is notable. Indeed, his responses often seem like the entreaties of a salesman under pressure to close the deal: "The reunification of the motherland will bring tremendous benefits to the people of Taiwan," he argues, saying that it would open the mainland's huge market for Taiwan businesses and it won't cost Taiwan anything: "Peace and reunification will also mean a gain, not a loss, to the Taiwan authorities. Taiwan will enjoy a high degree of autonomy after reunification. It can retain its political system, social system and life style and even its own army. The leaders of Taiwan can take part in the leading of China after her reunification, and the mainland will not dispatch officials to Taiwan." Thus, the offer under conveyance is of Hong Kong "plus," an even better deal for Taipei.

What a deal this is! he is saying. Even if the two governments remain frozen in their respectively unyielding positions, he suggests, let a thousand of those so-called "second channel" contacts bloom. "We can all the same have talks and discussions with parties and groups in Taiwan that acknowledge the 'one China' concept," he writes. "Such dialogues can be deemed as a channel, which is obviously helpful to reaching a consensus . . . "

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