It's only a small exaggeration to say that all of Taiwan was eyeing China last week, as a historic opportunity for better cross-strait relations played out. Lien Chan, chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), the party that's been a longtime enemy of China's Communists, touched down on the mainland for a weeklong "Journey of Peace" that ultimately brought him to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for a much anticipated handshake with President Hu Jintao. Lien, who unsuccessfully ran twice for Taiwan's presidency, hadn't been on the mainland since he left with his family at the age of 10 in 1946. The meeting inevitably kindled memories of the last time the KMT and the Communist Party joined forces—in 1937 to fight the Japanese—and the 1945 meeting in which Mao Zedong and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek reached a shaky agreement, which collapsed into the final four years of civil war that forced the KMT to Taiwan.
Hu and Lien's handshake was beamed across the world, but talk of "closure" or an end to the tension in the Taiwan Strait was irrationally exuberant. From the Taiwan side, in fact, the event largely highlighted the deep political divisions on the island—and Beijing's adroit efforts to exploit them. Lien was received like a visiting head of state, which he isn't. Taiwan's President is Chen Shui-bian, and he and his supporters want to stand up to China, not cozy up. Chen actually endorsed Lien's trip at the last minute. But the phoniness of that rapprochement was on display at Taipei's Chiang Kai-shek International Airport the morning Lien boarded the plane. Hundreds of pro-independence supporters, accusing Lien of "selling out Taiwan," clashed with his well-wishers. Fists, stones and eggs were thrown. Old men were beaten to the ground. One man was struck with a nunchaku, the martial-arts fighting weapon. Afterward, tough-talking Vice President Annette Lu described the incident as "unfortunate," but said she wasn't too displeased about the international news coverage—because it emphasized that Taiwan was not united behind Lien's visit. "He is cooperating with the Communists to downgrade the President's legitimacy and power," she said. And Lien is not the only controversial pilgrim: next week, Hu will welcome to Beijing James Soong, a former KMT bigwig who broke away in 1999 and nowadays is head of the People First Party, the island's third largest.
Lien wasn't forced to give way on any touchy diplomatic issues: when it was in government in 1992, the KMT and Beijing came to a "consensus" that there was only one China—but agreed that each side could have a different interpretation of what that entails. That was a high point in cross-strait relations. When Chen's Democratic Progressive Party took over power in 2000, that consensus had already crumbled, and Chen refuses to adopt the formula. As a consequence, Beijing won't deal with him.
For China, visits from Lien and Soong are no-losers: it gives away nothing but a few rounds of toasts and, in return, gets top Taiwan politicians to come and affirm the goal of eventual unification. Beijing also managed to appear graceful toward its so-called renegade province just six weeks after the passage of an antisecession law that commits it to war if Taiwan declares independence. (Washington was a booster of the Lien visit, but also urged Beijing to "reach out" to President Chen.)
And while playing host to Lien and Soong, Hu undoubtedly kept an eye on CNN and the BBC to see the kind of ruckus the visits are creating for Chen and the KMT at home. "Taiwan has always been divided over the issue of how to deal with China," says Joseph Wu, chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's top policymaking body on mainland issues. "China knows this. In [inviting Lien to China], it creates internal problems." Professor Lee Si-kuen, a professor of political science at National Taiwan University (and a KMT member), calls Lien's trip "the wrong thing at the wrong time," adding "it will aggravate the divisions in Taiwan society." Chang Hui-ching, 34, a historian at Taiwan's National Palace Museum, says the political schism is already too wide. A former pro-independence activist, Chang no longer votes or discusses politics because, she says, "in Taiwan there is no middle ground. Everyone is talking but no one is listening. People's positions are fixed." In fact, poll results suggest some nuance of attitude. In a survey by Taiwan's Focus Survey Research, 64% of respondents said Lien had no right to represent Taiwan on such a visit. But in newspaper polls, a majority said they supported his attempt to seek a solution to the cross-strait deadlock.
Wu Heng-ming, 86, an army colonel during the period of KMT rule, has the advantage of the long view. Wu still has Communist shrapnel in his throat and stomach from the civil war. When his army retreated to Taiwan, he left behind his wife and infant son. Years later, Wu learned that his wife's father was killed by the abandoned son during the Cultural Revolution. "He tortured him," Wu says. "It was a time when the young were told to turn against their elders." He says he no longer harbors resentment against the Communists and says the ghosts of the civil war should be laid to rest. "We are all Chinese," says Wu. "It is time for peace." That's the kind of dispassion needed for progress in the Taiwan Strait—rather than a nunchaku.