Despite its still firm commitment to anticommunism, Taiwan has significantly increased indirect trade and personal contacts with China and acknowledged a new attitude toward the mainland that could someday bring direct talks.
Hong Kong officials report that the volume of goods shipped through the British territory from Taiwan to China increased sixtyfold in the first half of this year. The value of the shipments rose from a negligible $50,000 during the first six months of 1978 to about $3 million in the same period this year.Some visitors to this year's fall trade fair in Canton were astonished to find in their hotel rooms Toshiba refrigerators clearly labeled "Made in Taiwan, Republic of China."
A Taiwan government spokesman recently said the island nation had dropped its policy of not attending international conferences where Chinese delegates were present. The spokesman said at least 18 meetings had been held where delegates from both China and Taiwan attended.
Nearly a year after Taiwan's strongest ally, the United States, closed its embassy in Taipei and recognized Peking, Taiwan and its people appear to have gained new confidence in their ability to remain strong and independent without direct U.S. ties. Peking's new soft line toward Taiwan and the Communist Party's open admission of its own economic failings seem to have coaxed Taiwanese officials to lower some of the old barriers to any contacts or to widespread information about the mainland, even though they still warn against communist duplicity.
One Taipei newspaper took the unusual step of printing an account by three Taiwanese students of how they befriended some Chinese students who had come to the United States to study. "They not only have assumed a low profile but sometimes an underdog role, in sharp contrast to the usual aloof and cocky image they had presented to outsiders in private as well as in public dealings," one Taiwanese student said.
Such favorable comment toward mainland students would have been unheard of in the Taiwan press a year ago. There has been greatly expanded coverage on television and in newspapers of all kinds of events in China in the last year. The coverage has focused on events that do not put life in China in the best light -- trials of dissidents, reports of previous tortures of leading artists and writers, and complaints of economic and political hardship from vagabonds and petitioners demonstrating in Peking.
Diane Ying, a Taiwan citizen who covers the island for the Asian Wall Street Journal, wrote that the initial reaction to such coverage was "pretty much what the ruling authorities had hoped" -- renewed belief that Taiwan's economic and political system works better than the mainland's.
But, Ying added, "The news reports have also, gradually, lessened the morbid fear of communism prevailing in Taiwan. Many people are now able to make a somewhat realistic assessment of the communist rule -- a departure from the past attitude of fear, hatred and suspicion of the Chinese Communists.
"There's been one reaction to the reports that the authorities might not have expected. They have produced an outburst of compassion and sympathy and, for some, even an awakened feeling of oneness with China."
Military authorities on Taiwan say the nationalist forces on the offshore islands have ceased their shelling of the mainland, and now only send over balloons loaded with anticommunist propaganda.
Since Dec. 31, 1978, when China announced it was ending its regular shelling of Taiwanese-held islands off its southern coast, Peking's conciliatory gestures toward its enemy in an unfinished 50-year-old civil war have continued. China announced an end to import duties on Taiwan-made goods, helping stimulate the growth in imports from Taiwan through Hong Kong.
China's sale of goods to Taiwan through Hong Kong has also increased, without the substantial volume of goods smuggled between the mainland and the island 90 miles offshore. Hong Kong officials say $27 million in Chinese goods went to Taiwan in the first half of this year. Much of this trade, as usual, consisted of mainland herbs highly prized as food and medicine in Taiwan. Textile products such as nylon, cotton and flannel also appeared to have been part of the flow of goods.
Although it does not directly relate to trade with the mainland, there is some significance in Taiwan's recent decision to encourage direct trade with Eastern Europe. Government leaders told officials of Taiwan's Board of Foreign Trade to study measures for direct trade links with Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. One Taipei newspaper called it the "most significant trade policy change in 30 years."
The decision revealed the remarkable change in Taiwan's attitude toward dealing with Communists, and weakens its case against more direct trade with the mainland. The Eastern Europeans, particularly the Yugoslavs, are also experienced in trade with Peking, which adds another potential element of contact between island and mainland.
The Chinese have encouraged this attitude by openly complimenting Taiwan on its economic success. Travelogues showing bustling Taiwanese cities have been shown on Chinese television. One group of Taiwanese tourists, encountering by chance a mainland delegation in Paris, were surprised and pleased to hear that the communist officials said they wanted to "learn from Taiwan" the secret of its prosperity.
"Local businessmen are champing at the bit" to step up trading with the mainland, at least through middlemen in Hong Kong, one analyst in Taipei said. Economists see several ways the two sides could help each other; for instance, selling Taiwanese electronic gear in exchange for Chinese petroleum.
Taipei's Nationalist authorities continue to insist on their old policy of eventual overthrow of communism on the mainland. Without such policies, many of the mainland refugees who control the Taiwan government feel their Nationalist rule would lose its legitimacy. But those officials who insist most strongly on this are growing very old, and small hints like Taipei's uncharacteristically mild rebuff to the suggestion of postal contacts with the mainland shows some change is coming.
The island is fighting grimly to reverse decisions such as the recent one that forces them to drop their flag and anthem if they want to compete in the Olympics. But people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait still seem affected emotionally by sharing of the same language and cultural custom. Further economic changes could bring them much closer together.