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Hu's Window of Opportunity

September 21, 2004

Chinese leader Hu Jintao's consolidation of power is unlikely to produce radical shifts of policy on major international issues, but it provides an opportunity for China to reduce tensions over Taiwan. That would be welcome in myriad ways because a military clash in the Taiwan Strait could quickly draw in the United States and force other nations to take sides. Improved relations could enable Beijing and Taipei to spend less on defense and increase their already substantial trade; foreign investors also could stop worrying about being caught in the middle of combat.

Hu became Communist Party leader in 2002, president in 2003 and head of the military Sunday, when Jiang Zemin relinquished the military post. China's army hard-liners have driven the policy of continual threats of attacks on Taiwan, which all Chinese leaders consider a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland.

Hu would reassure neighboring nations and the United States if he stopped missile deployments and military exercises intended as threats. Last month, Beijing called off annual military maneuvers on Dongshan Island, near Taiwan. Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian reciprocated soon after. That was an important gesture from Chen, whose rhetoric in his campaign for reelection in March alarmed many of Taipei's supporters, including Washington.

Although not actually uttering the word "independence," Chen came close. Singapore and Australia urged Chen not to provoke Beijing, and President Bush, who has promised to defend Taiwan against any mainland aggression, also warned Chen not to attempt any unilateral change in the status quo. Hu is expected to continue China's efforts to get the U.S. and North Korea to agree on a plan in which Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program and Washington guarantees it won't invade and will provide economic assistance.

Now that he leads the party, the government and the military, Hu should be free from factional sniping over such issues as the Taiwan matter and China's political liberalization. His comment last week that Western-style democracy was unsuitable for China dashes hope that he might remove restrictions on Internet use or end the harsh punishments of Chinese who publicly decry Beijing's authoritarian rule. The fact that Hu addressed an issue that once would have gone without saying at least indicates he's aware that the country's increased reliance on foreign investment and advanced communications, including the Internet, challenges its attempt to monopolize information and shut out more liberal political influences. As successor to Mao Tse-tung, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang, Hu should try to carve out a role as the leader who understands that China's 1-billion-plus people deserve a more representative government to accompany their air conditioners, cars and better housing.

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