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China, Not Taiwan, threatens Peace


July 27, 1999

By Jonathan Mirsky, the former East Asia editor of the Times of London.

The United States may pride itself on being the champion of liberty and democracy around the world, but when it comes to Taiwan the U.S. is betraying its ideals. Instead of standing up for the first and only democracy on Chinese soil, Washington is pressing Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to stop saying that there are two Chinese states and that if reunification is to be achieved China must be democratic.

To his credit, U.S. President Bill Clinton has made it plain to China's President Jiang Zemin that the United States will defend Taiwan if Beijing attempts to settle the latest rhetorical scrap with Taipei by force. But Mr. Clinton says as well, and not for the first time, that he accepts the mainland's view that there is only one China and that its capital is in Beijing.

Clearly, this is no longer true. Taiwan is a state in every sense of the word, except for the diplomatic fudge devised by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon in 1972 which deemed that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Straits believed there is only one China. The fudge was transformed into concrete in 1979 when Jimmy Carter normalized relations with Beijing, making an American commitment to One China which President Clinton has refined yet further in Beijing's favor.

The normalization may have been necessary for Washington-Beijing relations 20 years ago, but the present realities are vastly different. Taiwan has developed into a civilized nation state. In addition to the flag, anthem and army which Chiang Kai-shek brought to Taiwan with him in 1949, Taiwan now has fairly elected central and local governments. China, by contrast, has only begun experimenting with occasional village elections.

Taiwan is one of the world's most successful economies, treated as a separate entity by the European Community, Japan, and the United States. The strength of its free markets and effective government supervision allowed it to weather the crisis which has humbled Japan and Hong Kong. Meanwhile China's state banks are bankrupt, its credit rating unstable, and its economy shaky enough that Premier Zhu Rongji is making alarmed sounds in public.

Taiwan's military, up-to-date and well-disciplined, knows its place. Unlike the generals of the People's Liberation Army, there are no blood-curdling boasts from the Taiwan brass whenever the newest "Taiwan crisis" erupts, and, unlike President Jiang Zemin, President Lee does not utter epithets like "treason," or "the use of force," and order military exercises to placate his generals. Beijing, not Taipei, menaces the peace of East Asia.

Taiwan is an ally of the West and of the United States in particular. American values are strongly felt there, and it should take much more than Mr. Kissinger's pragmatism and President Carter's agreement to justify Washington's treatment of the island as a flash point. It is a flashpoint only because Beijing says so.

Why do we let Beijing get away with this? Are its values ours?

Clearly not. Beijing has just officially banned the Falun Gong, a religious group composed of millions of peaceful people seeking health and spiritual calm. Just a few weeks after Premier Zhu assured its leaders they had nothing to worry about, thousands of its adherents all over the country have been corralled for protesting at being labeled virtual criminals.

Christians who prefer to worship outside the control of the Patriotic Church risk imprisonment, as do Tibetans who deify the Dalai Lama. Tibet's second ranking religious figure, the child Panchen Lama designated by the Dalai Lama, has been kidnapped with his family and Beijing will not say where he is. All the leaders of China's tiny Democratic Party are in jail and the principal political dissidents have been exiled to the United States.

Internationally, Beijing isolates itself. It abstained on the U.N. resolutions during the Gulf war, did the same over Kosovo, and ignores the crimes of President Milosevic. Its press compares the United States to the Nazis for having mistakenly bombed China's embassy in Belgrade. Beijing continually frightens its neighbors in the South China Sea because of disputes over islands hundreds of miles off China's shores. Even though it probably cannot invade Taiwan, the Chinese army conducts mock invasions of the island and only three years ago lobbed missiles into the waters close to its ports.

The Carter version of One China, which still weighs down America's policy makers, is based on the traditional Chinese view that there is one emperor, one united country, one tradition and one set of rituals. Everything else is heterodox or, as they now say in Beijing, "counter-revolutionary," "anti-Chinese," and "splittist." It is still believed in Washington that vast historical forces will eventually bring Taiwan and the mainland together, just as many mainlanders believe that eventually all the pesky ethnics--Muslims, Tibetans, Manchus and Mongols--will be dissolved in the great Han sea.

But Taiwan has exposed this thinking as a fallacy--it has preserved Chinese culture even as it has developed its own identity. While the island is a modern place, many of whose government, business and academic leaders have been educated in the West, in a cultural sense it is more "Chinese" than the mainland. Its children learn to read and write traditional characters, many middle-class people have collections of the classics on their shelves and Sung and Ming-style paintings and scrolls on their walls.

On the mainland, until recently, these things were condemned as "feudal." Relics were smashed and books were burned. Even today students there learn only simplified characters, and so they are rendered illiterate in their country's great literary tradition. Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are treated as potentially disruptive and, like Christianity, are overseen by special organs of the Communist Party.

Since the Nixon visit to China in 1972, successive American governments have made it clear to Beijing that there must be no attempt to conquer Taiwan by force. However, the hope, never expressed, is that someday Taiwan will float close to the mainland, like a space capsule, and eventually dock there.

This is an affront to our values and an insult to the people of Taiwan. Since the late 1940s, when they began agitating against the Chiang Kai-shek police state, and through the years when Chiang's son and successor President Chiang Ching-kuo gradually permitted increasing democracy, Taiwanese have pressed their government to redefine its links with Beijing. More than 80% of the them are descended from ancestors who left the mainland 300 years ago and they view the government across the Strait as repressive and backward. Many say, "We are Taiwanese-Chinese." Others leave off the second word.

Washington cannot tell Beijing how to order its interior affairs. But 100 miles away, across the Taiwan Strait, is another Chinese "state," self-determining and democratic. The United States should treat Taiwan not as a nagging pain but as an example of what the mainland can eventually become.