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Behind the China-Taiwan war of words

Boston, September 12, 1999

By W. Scott Thompson and Nicholas Thompson

"It is a familiar tactic of the privileged to throw moral discredit on the underprivileged," the British historian E.H. Carr wrote 60 years ago, "by depicting them as disturbers of the peace."

Then as now it was true in domestic as well as international arrangements industrialists commenting on strikers or great powers on the smaller ones that were trying to survive. Today, when the obstreperous weak have the temerity to try to preserve or even improve the status quo, the whole world gangs up on them to sustain the received wisdom.

So it was no surprise to hear a near universal chorus of condemnation of Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui, from the American secretary of state down through the community of China scholars, when he merely stated a fact: that since he governs a state, as do the civil authorities in mainland China, negotiations between them are, and have to be, on a state-to-state basis albeit a "special state-to-state relationship," he conceded.

Not since a little tyke declared that the emperor had no clothes was any more obvious fact laid bare.

Of course, every attempt has been made to divine Lee's motive: splitting the field of his would-be successors in Taiwan's elections next year? Taking advantage of American fatigue with Beijing after the brouhaha of past months? Those may be good reasons, but they are not the real ones.

My strong suspicion is that none of the presumed stratagems in Lee's move is very important. It is, rather, his clear knowledge that Beijing has personalized all it loathes in Taiwan's accomplishments in a single person, Lee Teng-hui, the hated "splitter," as Beijing calls him. He is on his way out, and he can knowingly and shrewdly ratchet relations up a significant grade between the two states while his own statements and persona remain a lightning rod for Chinese fulminations.

When he has left the scene after next year's elections, Taiwan and Beijing can negotiate on a new basis of relative equality, and while the Chinese leadership will resent the necessity, they can project this distaste onto a person so familiar a process for them. Lee Teng-hui will gladly bear the blame; his country will have moved one notch up from the inappropriate isolation into which the international community, under Beijing's pressure, has pushed it.

There are good reasons for the old leadership of Beijing to resent Taiwan.

The sense that the island is the last bastion of the losing side in China's civil war, which is usually given as the reason for Beijing's continuing attempts to isolate the small republic, is dwarfed by the embarrassing procession of successes Taiwan presents to the world: from dictatorship to a modern healthy and secure democracy, from abject poverty to one of the greatest economic success stories of history.

The mainland has lurched from great leaps forward and backward to a system of sustained euphemism: The world humors China on the basis of its presumed future power as it proclaims its very real successes market derived while hiding its weakness: its continued and unstable dictatorship of the proletariat by an unelected politburo.

While we stand in awe of its culture, respect its economic achievements, and wish it the greatest success as a major power in international affairs, we do not condone the harassment of a small country, behavior that by now China should have outgrown.

China is already and deserves to be a major player in world affairs. But the world community needs to stand back and tell our friends in Beijing that it is time to call a spade a spade. It is time to say "stop the bullying," behave like a modern great power, accept the limits to your own revolutionary successes, and respect what your Chinese cousins on Taiwan have accomplished.

You will look far better for it, your power and economy will grow accordingly, and the world will have one less tinderbox to worry about. It is unseemly and only too revealing of your own failures for you to behave in so adolescent a way toward this remarkable success that Taiwan can show.

Accept Taiwan, as you have quietly accepted its $30 billion in investment, admire its political legitimacy and coherence. Show yourself a worthy central kingdom that Taipei is only too eager to honor as the fount of its culture. And then deal with it, perhaps in the way London deals with Ottawa or Canberra related, smaller, but equal.

Watch the world breath a sigh of relief and increase its respect for you as you permit everyone's relations to grow with Taiwan.

W. Scott Thompson is director of the program in Southeast Asia studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Nicholas Thompson is a Washington based writer.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 09/12/99.