President Ma Ying-jeou sat at the head of large conference table in his presidential office, and inscribed on the wall behind him was the name of his nation: Republic of China. Beside that, in parentheses and smaller letters, was acknowledgment that he was actually speaking from the island of Taiwan. Ma was participating in a teleconference, addressing an audience at Stanford University and other U.S. locations.
By JOEL BRINKLEY
Tribune Media Services
Ma, like every Taiwanese leader for the last 60 years, clings to the conviction that his government is the rightful ruler of that nation called China, while Xi Jinping, president of the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland, believes theres only one China, and Taiwan is an integral part of that.
Thats been the hard nut at the center of the conflict between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Partys military defeated the states Kuomintang government and drove it off the mainland, to Taiwan.
But the struggle has entered an interesting new phase, and its not entirely certain who will prevail. Since Ma first took office in 2008 , he has made improving relations with China his first priority.
Ma noted that when he first took office, there were no scheduled flights between Taiwan and the mainland. Now there are 616 scheduled flights per week. Whats more, 17,000 mainland Chinese students study at Taiwanese universities each year. And a few days ago, the Chinese Business Newswire noted that economic trade between China and Taiwan, at $29.05 billion in the first two months of 2013, grew by 36.4 percent over the previous year.
For decades China threatened military action to retake Taiwan. But after Ma took office, those threats began to recede, and commerce began picking up. This still worries many Taiwanese, especially opposition Democratic Progressive Party officers who call for maintaining a tough line with China.
Bi Khim Hsiao, who was director of international affairs for the opposition party, once told me that China isnt using missiles anymore. Theyre trying to buy us use economic leverage in a sophisticated way.
In fact, many farmers and merchants now find themselves dependent on the Chinese market for survival. For many in Taiwan thats a worrying trend. As Bi said, isnt China simply trying to buy Taiwan, as it already has bought Cambodia, Mozambique and so many other states with billions of dollars in aid?
With tens of thousands of Chinese now visiting Taiwan, Taiwanese leaders hope these people offer a shining ray of hope to the 1.3 billion Chinese people on the mainland, as Ma put it. After all, Taiwan, with its 23 million people, is a thriving, prosperous, liberal democracy in every sense of that word the first Chinese democracy in history. Isnt that what most mainland Chinese actually want, Ma and others ask?
Still, the number of so-called mass incidents, already tens of thousands a year, is constantly rising. These are major protests over repression, pollution, corruption, home seizures, toxic food and so much more.
Most Chinese simply arent happy with the status quo. Even rich people no longer trust the government. Theyre sending their money out of the state billions of dollars each year. So the question arises: How long can the Communist government survive in this atmosphere of withering public discontent?
Taiwanese officials are asking similar questions. Are thousands of Chinese tourists, businessmen and students going back home with warm visions of a successful democracy in their heads and then telling all their friends?
Projecting a positive image with the hope of turning China into a democracy is at best a mammoth task, and Taiwanese understand that. As one Taiwan official told me: It feels like were a tugboat trying to pull a big ship.
Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former correspondent for The New York Times.