China Reaches Deeper into Taiwan Politics ; Beijing Is Speaking More Directly to Taiwanese, Reversing Perceptions of a Mainland Threat

Article excerpt

Half a year after top opposition Taiwan politicians Lien Chan and James Soong were feted in historic visits to Beijing, the ripple effects brought by promises of good will and trade appear to have penetrated more deeply than at first thought - intensifying political divisions and emotions in the young democracy.

Beijing is poised to use its meetings with opposition parties to gain unprecedented influence in Taiwan's domestic politics.

It is aiming messages directly at the public, aided by political forces that once fought a civil war with Mao's army. It has also offered perks to farmers in the south, traditionally an independence stronghold. China's tourism minister is visiting Taipei this week.

The state of affairs is a striking reversal of the political mood and of edgy cross-straits relations. The pro-independence government of President Chen Shui-bian appears so off-balance, say analysts, that its once-bold plan to revise the Constitution and hold a referendum seems on hold. And many Taiwanese believe that the military threat has dramatically abated, a shift noted by US and Taiwanese officials last month.

"There has been a very successful effort by Beijing to cultivate ties," notes Bonnie Glaser of the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. "It is the first time China has been able to establish contacts by using very different political offices and groups around Taiwan, and the [Chen government] is finding it can't channel, control, or stop that move."

The seeming marginalization of President Chen has cooled emotions in Beijing, where hatred of Chen and his platform is palpable. In Taiwan, a fistfight erupted in the legislature last month, hinting at new partisan tensions.

Only last December, in order to intimidate those in favor of Taiwan independence, Beijing announced an "antisecession law." The law claimed a legal basis for China to attack Taiwan if the island of 23 million declared independence, as well as the right to arrest Taiwanese who promoted the island's formal status as an independent state.

The move caused an uproar. It was broadly condemned in international circles, and gave ammunition to those in Taipei who say a separate Taiwanese cultural and political identity is urgently needed. China seemed menacing and hamhanded.

Yet Beijing found other cards to play to soften that position: The visit last April by outgoing KMT leader Mr. Lien to the country of his birth, and the red carpet treatment of Lien, combined with toasts to harmony and unity, was a breakthrough for China. The visit was broadcast live in China and Taiwan - motorcades to and from the airport, tearful visits home, and meetings with top leaders, including President Hu Jintao. On Chinese TV, Lien seemed almost like Taiwan's head of state - though he, in fact, had lost the presidential election to Chen the previous spring. …