By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 4, 2005
SHANGHAI, May 3 -- The leader of Taiwan's opposition Nationalist Party, wrapping up a historic visit to mainland China, said he had achieved a "fundamental consensus" with the country's Communist Party leadership to end hostilities that have enveloped the Taiwan Strait for more than half a century.
Lien Chan, head of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, which ruled China until it fled to Taiwan in 1949 to escape victorious Communist forces, said Tuesday in an interview with The Washington Post that the channel he opened puts pressure on Taiwan's pro-independence president to seek a compromise with China. Lien, 68, also said his eight-day visit had unleashed a process of engagement that holds out the promise of peace, stability and increased trade.
"It has presented to our people a viable alternative, a viable choice in our relations with mainland China," Lien said. "Isn't this the time for dialogue? Isn't this the general wishes of the people around the world?"
Lien's tour, which ended after a visit to this city, marked the first time that a Nationalist leader had stepped on mainland Chinese soil since the defeat of the Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek at the hands of the Communists, who have governed since. He visited the former Nationalist capital in Nanjing and his birthplace in the city of Xian.
In a moment televised live on both sides of the strait, Lien shook hands Friday with President Hu Jintao, who controls a military that still points hundreds of missiles at Taiwan. Lien and Hu then unveiled a communique in which their two parties -- former sworn enemies -- vowed to seek a formal end to hostilities and increase economic ties.
On Monday in Shanghai, China's gleaming commercial capital, Lien met with Taiwanese businesspeople responsible for some of the island's estimated $70 billion in mainland investments, promising to try to forge a common market.
But as Lien departed on Tuesday, he confronted questions about whether the good feelings surrounding his visit could be parlayed into a harmonious future. It was unclear whether his trip had sufficiently altered politics on Taiwan to clear the way for talks between President Chen Shui-bian and leaders in Beijing.
Lien declined in the interview to offer an opinion on whether Taiwan should reunify with China, saying the Nationalists favor leaving the question to future generations. "We as a party have to follow the main current of Taiwan, and the maintenance of status quo commands the support of the majority," he said.
In a clear sign of the effect of Lien's visit, the Taiwanese president on Tuesday invited Hu to visit the island. China rejected the invitation but signaled a desire to continue engagement with Taiwan, announcing that it would lift restrictions on mainland tourists visiting the island and scrap tariffs on shipments of certain fruits. China also promised to deliver a pair of giant pandas to Taiwan as a goodwill gesture.
But China also underscored that a major stumbling block between the two sides remained in force: At a news conference in Beijing, Maj. Gen. Wang Zaixi, vice chairman of China's policymaking Taiwan Affairs Office, said Communist leaders would not engage in talks with Taiwan's government until it acknowledged that the island is part of China. Chen has steadfastly rejected that condition, asserting that it would violate Taiwan's sovereignty.
Lien's visit was read widely as an attempt to capitalize on growing impatience among Taiwan's citizens with the government's stance toward China. Even before Tuesday's flurry of overtures, the visit forced Chen to alter his approach: On Sunday, after the communique was issued, Chen told reporters that he was willing to hold official talks with China aimed at formal reconciliation.
In Tuesday's interview, Lien praised Chen for holding open the possibility of cross-strait talks. "I think he showed some goodwill," Lien said. But he also challenged the notion that realizing the goals of the communique depended on Chen's assent, pointing to China's scrapping of tariffs and travel restrictions as evidence. "Some can be done unilaterally, and some can be done by people, by the private sector," he said.
Recent public opinion polls in Taiwan have shown that a majority of people approved of Lien's visit and the prospect of improved relations with China. Still, Lien and his party face the risk that Chen and Taiwan independence activists could paint his visit as a sign that he has compromised the island's sovereignty for political gain.
"It's a democratic society," Lien said, dismissing such concerns. "You've got to have voices from different perspectives."
The communique he struck with China reaffirms a 1992 agreement between the two sides that they both acknowledge that the mainland and Taiwan are part of "one China," while agreeing to disagree about what that means. That understanding disintegrated in 1999, as then-President Lee Teng-hui characterized his dealings with China as "a special state-to-state relationship." Relations have been at a stalemate since then.
Lien described his journey here as personal as much as political. He spent his first eight years in mainland China before his father, a Nationalist official, took him back to his native Taiwan at the end of World War II as the vanquished Japanese surrendered the island. Once the Communists took power, the Taiwan-mainland divide was sealed. On his visit to Xian, Lien visited the tomb of his grandmother for the first time in 60 years, voicing an apology to her for the long absence. He spoke in both the Taiwanese dialect and Mandarin, the Chinese national language.
In Beijing, he said he was touched by a personal overture from Hu, who gave him letters that Lien's father had sent to the Nationalist government in Nanjing in 1914 seeking official Chinese citizenship at a time when Taiwan was separated from China and ruled by Japan.
Lien's visit to Shanghai may have presented the most vivid reminder of how much has changed. On Monday, he met with one of China's principal negotiators with Taiwan, Wang Daohan, inside the old Jinjiang Hotel, a marble-and-brick building where in 1972 President Richard M. Nixon signed the Shanghai Communique, setting in motion the process under which the United States transferred diplomatic recognition of China from the Nationalists on Taiwan to the Communists in Beijing.
Six decades had passed since Lien lived in Shanghai. In those days, the city was confined to the west bank of the Huangpu River, while the east bank, Pudong, was a muddy fishing village. Today, Pudong is the center of the city's financial district, a riot of soaring towers of glass and steel. This was the scene visible from the 28th-story hotel suite in which Lien sat for the interview.
He did not, however, show much interest in the past. "History is history, and you can do nothing about it," he said. "But the future is something that you can do something about."