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Right side of the strait for a normal life courtesy civilisation

A funny thing happened on the way in from the airport. I stopped off unannounced at a government office, walked in through the door, found a room full of Chinese officials and was immediately swamped with information and offers of help.

And if this was not enough to give one severe culture shock, the episode all took place without either a demand for payment or even the need to treat anyone to an excruciating banquet of Shandong specialities.

Such are the delights of a first-time visit to Taiwan after several months without a break living in the People's Republic of China, where it is a battle just to find out the times of trains.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the immediate differences between the two Chinas. One knows from the little things that one has crossed more than an invisible psychological line. It starts with the way people use language. Visitors from Peking must learn very quickly not to use the word "Zhongguo", or China, if what they really mean is "da lu", the mainland. "China" is not even listed in thephone list of foreign countries, for this of course is the "Republic of China on Taiwan".

Then there is the unexpected self-assurance of Taipei's population, even when the mainland has been raining down missiles into the nearby seas. In Peking, any foreigner will be asked a multitude of times, "What do you think of China?" The expected answer should be something akin to "fantastic", and anything less is taken as an affront. In Taipei, locals will simply tell you "Taiwan is good" - without any need for confirmation.

As for the perceptions each side has of the other, the differences are wider than the Taiwan Strait. I was taken aback last May in Peking when a liberal-minded, 31-year-old Chinese friend, married to a Westerner, telephoned. "How could America do it?" was his outraged reaction on learning that the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, had secured a visa to visit the US.

Asked whether the mainland should invade Taiwan if the island declared independence, he said: "I guess so." Like most people in China, he seemed to have no idea about life in Taiwan and the political transformation of the past decade.

Many Taiwanese, by contrast, know someone who has travelled to the mainland since restrictions were scrapped in 1987. They do not like what they hear. "The mainland people are not rational," explained one 30-year-old journalist. "Their way of thinking is different. We have our own history, values and political system."

Like the majority of people one asks, she had absolutely no wish to visit the People's Republic. With a bluntness which would infuriate Peking, many Taiwanese despise mainlanders as uncultured and backward.

Taipei at the moment is gripped by presidential election fever, which accentuates the differences. On my first evening here, I went to see a big demonstration in favour of an opposition candidate in the middle of the square which commemorates General Chiang Kai-shek. After I had got used to the tight security in Peking, it seemed incredible that policemen were standing idly by as speakers with loudhailers argued for a change of president. And who were all those rash people marching around with banners, chanting wildly?

Under psychological siege by mainland missiles, Taipei still seems an outpost of normality compared to the rest of Peking's supposed Chinese "motherland". As elections draw nearer, everyone has his or her own political viewpoint, and is willing to expand on it at length, in public, without fear of giving their real name.

But the differences run far deeper than the political. As Sinologists search for signs of whether a civil society is emerging on the mainland, the Taiwanese are already well past the finishing line in establishing an environment where eye contact with strangers is normal, people hold open doors for each other, and red traffic lights have more than decorative value. And, yes, there is hardly any spitting.

None of this is to deny that there are also serious problems in Taiwan, such as organised crime and related political corruption. But as regards the latter, Taiwan is now lagging behind the mainland.

Whatever their preferences of candidate, Taipei people repeatedly stress that they are Taiwanese first. The fortune-tellers have been rather pessimistic recently on the likelihood of conflict with the mainland. One old lady said it would have to be left to fate. But one Taiwanese at least refused to worry. "If they attack, property prices will fall," he laughed. "And I will be able to afford to buy a home."

Teresa Poole