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China lightens up on Taiwan but leaves Tibet in the dark

March 8, 2009

MARCUS GEE
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
March 6, 2009

Lacking a democratic mandate, the Communist Party of China relies on two other sources of legitimacy: its success at delivering ever-rising prosperity to the majority of the Chinese people, and its success at uniting China and keeping it united.

If the first source dries up as the economic crisis worsens, it only makes sense that China's leaders would start to rely more heavily on the second. Those who muse about the future of the People's Republic have often suggested that, if the bottom were to fall out of the Chinese economic miracle, Beijing would try to stir up Chinese nationalism to maintain support for the Communist regime. In the months ahead, we will see that theory put to the test. Two main potential flashpoints are Taiwan and Tibet.

Taiwan has been a fully independent nation for decades and a remarkably successful one at that, with a vibrant democracy and an economic system that (at least until this crisis hit) has delivered consistent growth. Beijing, nevertheless, insists on regarding it as a renegade province that is an integral part of China. Bringing Taiwan under Chinese rule has been an unwavering goal of the Communist mainland.

Relations have been chippy at best for most of this decade. China loathed Taiwan's last president, Chen Shui-bian, the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, who annoyed Beijing by doing things such as scrapping an office dedicated to the unification of China and Taiwan. Under the new president, Ma Ying-jeou, relations across the Taiwan Strait have improved dramatically. Mr. Ma leads the Kuomintang, the old party of Chiang Kai-shek. He ran for office on a platform of improved relations with China and started to deliver soon after taking office in May.

Regular direct flights between Taiwan and the mainland have been stepped up. Beijing's Palace Museum has agreed to lend some art treasures to its counterpart in Taipei as a goodwill gesture. China has even presented the Taipei zoo with a pair of pandas named Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, whose linked names mean “reunion.”

In an address to a session of the National People's Congress yesterday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing was ready to hold talks with Taipei on political and military issues and to seek a peace treaty. The two sides are already negotiating a comprehensive free-trade deal that could draw them significantly closer.

All this is to the good. In hard times such as these, the two sides need each other badly. China needs Taiwan to invest in its factories and buy its exports. Taiwan, one of the countries hit worst by the crisis, is hoping for a surge of Chinese tourists to ease its pain. With Taiwan itself seeking warmer relations, China is far less likely rattle its sabre – or, worse, unsheathe it – to rally support at home. The last thing the world needs is for Taiwan and China to somehow stumble into war, a conflict that could easily draw in the United States.

When it comes to Tibet, the picture is much darker. Next Tuesday, Tibet marks the 50th anniversary of a revolt against Chinese rule that saw the Dalai Lama flee into exile. Last year, the worst anti-Chinese riots in decades broke out around the same date, bringing a crackdown by Chinese authorities. In the past few weeks, there have been reports of renewed tension in the provinces bordering Tibet. One monk reportedly set himself on fire, and others demonstrated in at least two locations.

A New York Times reporter visiting the region said he saw a heavy security deployment by Chinese troops. But Tibet's Chinese governor says that all is calm and that reports of unrest are “pure rumour.” The government is cheerily preparing for “Serf Liberation Day,” a government holiday that is supposed to encourage Tibetans to celebrate how the Chinese Communists freed them from feudal bondage and backwardness. Without the changes introduced with Chinese rule, says a new government report, “there would have been no emancipation of the labourers constituting 95 per cent of the Tibetan population, no frog-leaping social progress and human rights development … and no happy life for all the ethnic groups in Tibet today.”

The Tibetans are not buying it. This year, many of them marked the Tibetan New Year, which began on Feb. 25, by mourning instead of celebrating. Whatever progress there has been over Taiwan, China could easily squander over Tibet. Tempting as it may be to play the nationalism card in troubled times, China should step carefully.
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