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Taiwan-Tibet Issue: An Irritant to China

May 03, 2000|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — If you want to understand the countless subtle ways in which the recent election in Taiwan makes life more difficult for Chinese leaders, here's a classic example: Tibet.

For the last 50 years, Taiwan's Nationalist government has held Tibet to be part of China, as has the Communist regime in Beijing. That's not too surprising. After all, until the last decade, the Nationalists claimed the right to rule the whole Chinese mainland, so why give up Tibet?

"The [Nationalist] position that Tibet was part of China was a big stumbling block to the Tibetans for decades," notes Jeffrey Hopkins, professor of Tibetan studies at the University of Virginia.

But Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party--whose leader, Chen Shui-bian, will be sworn in three weeks from now as the government's first non-Nationalist president--makes no such claims for Tibet.

"The DPP will continue to support the Tibetan people's struggle for freedom," declared a party position paper in 1997. "Tibet is neither a part of China nor under the jurisdiction of the [Nationalist] government in Taiwan."

And so when supporters of Chen let it be known a few weeks ago that the Dalai Lama might be invited to Chen's inauguration, a Chinese spokesman quickly denounced the idea. Any such invitation would "undermine national harmony," he warned.

In those words, we can see the Chinese leadership's fears that the country may some day break apart, as did the former Soviet Union.

What if the many disparate entities the Chinese leadership opposes--separatist movements in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang; democracy movements in China and Hong Kong; religious groups like Falun Gong--joined together against the regime? What if some day they all got support from an outside power, such as the United States, Russia or Japan?

The prospect of any such coalition seems extremely remote. Still, the slightest movement toward collaboration--including the prospect of the Dalai Lama's blessing the swearing in of Taiwan's new president--is enough to give Chinese President Jiang Zemin nightmares.

Actually, there was a time when Taiwan and Tibet did work together against China, after a fashion, with the considerable help of the CIA.

During the 1950s and '60s, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and U.S. intelligence supported Tibetan guerrilla fighters based in Nepal as they sought to challenge and harass Mao Tsetung's forces in Tibet.

"I remember way back in 1959, the brother of the Dalai Lama was thick as thieves with Taiwan," recalled James R. Lilley, a former CIA official and U.S. ambassador to China. "There's been a constant contact, much of it in the semi-covert field, between Taiwan, Tibet and India."

America's hidden Tibetan operations ended with President Nixon's opening to China in 1972. If the United States plays any behind-the-scenes role these days, it is to discourage Tibetan actions that might unduly irritate Beijing.

The Clinton administration, for example, is reliably reported to have told the Tibetan movement in private that it wouldn't be a good idea for the Dalai Lama to attend Chen's inauguration. Neither the White House nor Tibetan sources would comment on the report.

The Dalai Lama visited Taiwan once before, in March 1997. At the time, the DPP criticized the Nationalist government for welcoming the Dalai Lama only as a religious figure, rather than as a political leader and "foreign dignitary."

There have been recent signs that the DPP is moderating its position on Tibet.

Taiwan's government has long included a Cabinet-level commission of "Mongolian and Tibetan affairs"--set up by the Nationalists during the era when Chiang dreamed of retaking the mainland and trying to govern it again.

And Tibetan exiles long have complained that this Taiwan commission undermined their movement by granting money primarily to those Tibetans who would say that Tibet was part of China. It also treated trips by Tibetans to Taiwan as internal Chinese travel, rather than visits from abroad.

Three years ago, the DPP called for "immediate abolition" of this commission. But this week, Chen filled the job once again, naming an academic ethnologist to be head of Mongolian and Tibetan affairs.

I-Chung Lai, the director of the DPP's office in Washington, insists his party has not altered its position concerning Tibet. He said the Cabinet-level office may yet be abolished and will meanwhile be redirected to take charge of minority affairs inside Taiwan.

As for Tibet's future, Lai said the DPP's position is still that "we respect whatever the Tibetan people decide." In other words, the Taiwan party's position is that Tibet is not part of China unless it chooses to be.

In the end, the Dalai Lama will not be visiting Taipei this month. After Beijing issued its warning, Tibetan officials let it be known that the Dalai Lama's travel schedule was too full.

And Taiwan's DPP leaders have also backed off. "We're trying not to offend China at this crucial moment," Vice President-elect Annette Lu explained recently.

Jiang Zemin can sleep better, at least for a few weeks.


Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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