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Viewpoint The Dalai Lama's Trip: A Muted Outcry from China

September 3, 2009

By Zoher Abdoolcarim
Time - September 2, 2009

When exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama visited Taiwan eight
years ago, Beijing went ballistic. To China's leaders, the Dalai Lama is
public enemy No. 1 for, they claim, fomenting Tibetan separatism. Until very
recently, the Beijing view of Taiwan was just as one-dimensional: a renegade
province led and populated by disloyal subjects bent on denying China's
party-given right to rule them. Put the two together and you have the
mainland's worst "splittist" nightmare. As the Dalai Lama sat down with the
island's then top political figures over a 10-day period in April 2001,
Beijing tossed every invective across the narrow Strait of Taiwan short of
declaring war.

Fast-forward to today. On Aug. 30, the Dalai Lama landed in Taiwan -
regarded as precious Chinese soil by Beijing - to comfort and bless victims
of Typhoon Morakot, one of the deadliest storms to strike the island. The
Chinese leadership's reaction to the Dalai Lama's presence? Simply that it
"resolutely opposes this." Later, China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the
visit would "negatively influence" cross-strait relations, and to be sure,
Beijing did cancel a couple of planned official delegations to Taiwan. But
these were not deal breakers. For Beijing, which has fired missiles toward
Taiwan in the past, the action was akin to throwing a snowball. In fact, on
the Dalai Lama's first full day in Taiwan, the two sides, once the most
implacable of foes, inaugurated direct regular flights - the first since the
Chinese civil war ended 60 years ago.

What changed? Both China and Taiwan. Since becoming the island's President
in May 2008, Ma Ying-Jeou has eschewed the breakaway bluster of his
predecessor Chen Shui-bian and, amid the global recession, hitched Taiwan's
economic future to China's growth engine. (So as not to provoke Beijing, he
previously passed on an opportunity to schedule a meeting with the Dalai
Lama, unlike Chen in 2001.) In the 15 months since Ma has been in office,
Taiwan and China have launched a raft of trade, investment, transport and
cultural initiatives and exchanges that are inexorably binding the two
together. As much as it will ever trust any Taiwan leader, Beijing sees Ma
as a pragmatic politician with whom it can do business.

But the transformative factor is that China finally seems to understand
Taiwan. The island has always been a more complex place for Beijing to
decipher than Hong Kong or Macau - straightforward former British and
Portuguese colonies, respectively, whose governments could make no moral
argument against the return of the two territories to Chinese sovereignty.
Taiwan is different. Since 1987, when the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) lifted
martial law, the island has gradually become a thriving, if somewhat
rambunctious, democracy. Its 23 million people determine its future - not
Beijing or London or Lisbon. Even those who favor eventual unification with
China embrace a strong sense of Taiwanese identity. A sizable portion of the
population - some estimates put it at as high as one-third - opposes Ma's
overtures to China. It's this constituency that nurtures former President
Chen's pro-independence, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP),
giving Taiwan at least two vital political parties, a phenomenon still
uncommon in much of Asia.

Previously, China either ignored - or chose to remain ignorant about - the
character of Taiwanese politics and society. Whenever Beijing was angry at
the island, it resorted to threats to try to bully it into submission,
tarring everyone with the same brush. But growing numbers of tourists,
scholars, journalists, businesspeople and even senior officials crossing the
strait in both directions have enabled China to better understand what makes
Taiwan tick. Now Beijing's strategy is more nuanced. That's partly tactical
and self-serving: the hard-line approach was driving people to the
pro-independence DPP and undermining Beijing's goal of unification with
Taiwan. But it's also a genuine effort to win Taiwanese hearts and minds and
to show that China, too, is more complex than a caricature of a totalitarian
state.

Take the Dalai Lama episode. The opposition DPP invited him to Taiwan in
order to put Ma in a spot - he'd be damned by his people as a mainland
lackey if he didn't O.K. the visit in a time of national mourning and
condemned by Beijing if he did. Ma took a gamble. He approved the trip - and
bet on China's leaders appreciating his dilemma. They did: their censure was
directed solely at the DPP with no mention of Ma whatsoever. In dealing
discretely with the assorted political forces driving the island, Beijing
displayed a degree of sophistication it hadn't before. Far from harming
cross-strait relations, the Dalai Lama's visit revealed how mature those
relations have become.

For the next step in their rapprochement, both sides must take a leap of
faith. It's great that Beijing and Ma get along, but he won't be around
forever - and with all-time-low approval ratings, perhaps not even for long.
As citizens of a democracy, the Taiwanese hold their elected officials
accountable for their performances, voting them out when they think those
officials have failed. For all that Ma has accomplished on the China front,
he's taken a hit at home over the hurting economy and, more recently, over
his government's less-than-stellar Morakot relief efforts. While Beijing has
a big stake in Ma's political survival, it should start looking beyond the
current President and the KMT and build bridges to moderate DPP politicians.
After all, that party could be elected back to power.

As for those in Taiwan who still believe they can live apart from China -
well, they need to get real. In today's world, no place can flourish without
having a meaningful relationship with China, least of all Taiwan. In today's
world, no economy can be an island. The Strait of Taiwan was long one of the
world's most volatile flash points, with the potential to draw into conflict
even the U.S., which is obliged under its Taiwan Relations Act to aid the
island's defense. It's hard to predict the future that China and Taiwan have
with each other (unification, confederation, status quo?), but it's easy to
imagine, given all the progress that has occurred, that war, at the very
least, is no longer a possibility. That's something to be thankful for - and
something truly deserving of a Dalai Lama's blessing.
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