Leading Article: A confident Taiwan watches and waits

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The Independent Online
ONE heartening aspect of last week's 'unofficial' high-level meeting in Singapore between China and Taiwan was the daily demonstration by legislators of Taiwan's opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). They were trying to avert any secret moves towards reunification with the mainland. Their efforts represented a challenge not only to their own government, but also to China's view that democracy gets in the way of economic progress.

Taiwan, where martial law was lifted in 1987, is now well down the road of political liberalisation. Dissidents are returning, press restrictions have eased, and in last December's elections the DPP won a record 31 per cent of the vote. Taiwan is now immersed in vibrant, if sometimes chaotic, political debate.

The atmosphere was very different at China's other diplomatic talks last week, the Sino-British negotiations over electoral reform in Hong Kong, held behind firmly closed doors in Peking. At China's insistence, only one-third of the seats in Hong Kong's parliament will be directly elected in 1995. China's fury of the past six months was prompted by attempts to do no more than widen the restricted franchises for the other seats.

How then can China, while demanding an effective veto over political developments in Hong Kong, harbour hopes of peaceful reunification with democratic Taiwan? China originally designed the 'one country, two systems' formula for Taiwan in the Seventies, only later shifting it pragmatically to Hong Hong, where the reunification question was much easier because Britain's New Territories' lease was due to run out in 1997. The received wisdom was always that China would tread carefully over Hong Kong in the hope of constructing a similar deal to win back the greater jewel of Taiwan.

But the political chasm between China's leaders and Taiwan is still as deep as ever. Although last week's meeting was the highest-level contact since before the Communist victory in China in 1949, the two countries' agendas diverged sharply once they departed from carefully scripted agreements about document validation, registered postal deliveries and regular future meetings. In Taiwan, public optimism about the talks was based on hopes of sorting out the practical problems concerning visits to the mainland and rising trade.

Opinion polls in Taiwan suggest that, for most people, reunification is a vague and distant goal. If anything it is receding as Taiwan finds new confidence in its de facto independence. Despite China's attempts to isolate Taiwan internationally, several countries are quietly upgrading relations with it. Although Taiwan may watch Hong Kong to gauge how China honours international treaties, it still looks a long way from being tempted towards unification.