BEIJING, JAN. 14 -- Extending an olive branch to old enemies, China's Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang sent an extraordinary message of condolence to Taiwan today over the death of the island's staunchly anticommunist president Chiang Ching-kuo.

According to the official New China News Agency, Zhao praised Chiang for standing for the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland and for making efforts to relieve tensions between the two sides.

Zhao called on Chiang's successors in the Taiwan leadership to promote what he described as "the promising momentum" that has begun to appear in the relationship between the two sides. He reaffirmed Beijing's advocacy of a "peaceful reunification" between the mainland and Taiwan.

The news agency said the Communist Party's Central Committee sent a message of condolence to the Central Committee of the Kuomintang, Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party. It expressed shock at the death of Beijing's old foe, who died yesterday at the age of 77. The Communists had driven the Nationalist force led by Chiang's father, Chiang Kai-shek, off the mainland nearly four decades ago.

"Shocked to learn {of} the passing away of Mr. Chiang Ching-kuo. We would like to express our deep condolences and sincere sympathy to his relatives," Beijing's message to Taiwan read. China's national television network opened its program this evening with unprecedented coverage of Chiang. It devoted two minutes to a description of the message of condolence and showed films from Chiang's past speeches and other activities that have never been seen here before.

The television announcers had nothing negative to say about Chiang. But, in line with all the other comments today from Beijing, they did not recognize Chiang as the president of Taiwan but referred to him instead as chairman of the Kuomintang.

Kuomintang officials, in the meantime, dismissed Beijing's message of condolence as nothing more than psychological warfare or a united front tactic aimed at luring the Nationalists into negotiation with the Communists.

The Communists have frequently said they would like to recreate the spirit of the united front of the 1930s when the Kuomintang and Communist Party united against the Japanese.

Beijing has proposed that Taiwan accept reunification under a "one country, two systems" model that would allow Taiwan to keep its administration and armed forces. But the Kuomintang has adopted the "three nos" position of no contact, no compromise, and no negotiations with Beijing.

Raymond Tai, a spokesman for the Kuomintang's Central Committee, today said Beijing's message of condolence is "their normal practice." He said, "They never forget united front tactics. On the one hand, they show sympathy and, on the other, they attempt to isolate us internationally or threaten to take us over militarily."

But sources in Beijing said the message to Taiwan had significance; the Communists probably felt more comfortable dealing with their old enemy, Chiang, than with the newer leaders who, unlike Chiang, were not born on the Chinese mainland and have less of an attachment to the mainland.

Chinese foreign affairs specialists in Beijing said the Communists prefer confronting a strongman like Chiang, who held undisputed power, to dealing with a weaker president, such as Lee Teng-hui, Chiang's successor.

"It's going to make reunification harder," said a specialist at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing. "Now, no one person has absolute power in Taiwan."

Beijing's assessment is that Lee, 64, has little real power and will have to act with great caution when it comes to sensitive issues, such as reunification with the mainland. President Chiang strongly believed in uniting the mainland and Taiwan, even if he rejected the Communists' plan for achieving this goal.

The commitment of Taiwan's new president to reunification with the mainland is less certain. Most of Taiwan's youngest new leaders have never seen the mainland.