With the best will in the world it is hard to see anything new in President Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) invitation to Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to hold a "rational dialogue." The government is trying to talk up the offer as if it involves major concessions.
After all, Taiwan has now abandoned the two previous conditions -- that the talks take place outside China and that China abandon its demand that Taiwan recognize its "one China" principle.
In reality, this is almost meaningless. Chen cannot go to China without appearing as a supplicant seeking terms of surrender. And Hu will only come to Taiwan for a "handover" ceremony. As for "one China," Taiwan's condition for talks was that China drop this condition. Now Taiwan says it doesn't have to. But China's condition, of course, remains in place. And this is something that no Taiwanese government can afford to acquiesce to, given the slippery ever-changing definition of that principle -- something the pan-blues, shortsighted and ignorant even when not simply paid off by Beijing, have never properly dealt with.
Chen's talk of creating a "window of opportunity" for the "co-existence of a democratic Taiwan and a democratic China" verges on the fatuous. The current Chinese regime doesn't want a democratic China. And this is not simply because a bunch of cadres are used to the perks of power and don't want to lose them.
A large part of the Chinese intelligentsia -- the academics and think tank crowd whose role in policy-making is underappreciated -- are convinced that China can buck the historical trend according to which the most prosperous societies are liberal democracies, whatever the link between those two conditions might be. They think China is an exception, and democracy will destroy the social cohesion necessary for prosperity. There is an entire intellectual establishment in China, not just a political elite, that is opposed to democracy. If China is to democratize at all, it is not something that is going to happen soon.
A Taiwanese president might waste his time with pipe dreams about co-existence of democracies if he chooses, but the reality he faces is a weak democracy faced with a bellicose, ultra-nationalistic neighbor which imagines it has a claim on that democracy's territory. For Chen to spend so long enunciating a vision of democratic harmony was a victory of sentiment and wishful thinking over a sober analysis of the facts. If Chen's speech in Miami on Wednesday was, therefore, a lightweight party piece rather than anything of significance, there were still aspects of his speech to ponder. One of them was his remark that China is avoiding dialogue with Taiwan's popularly elected president and government.
This is of course true. But it is not unambiguously seen as such. One of the most profound consequences of the dispute over the presidential election last year -- ? and the deeply unfortunate results of the legislative election last December -- was the muddying of the waters about who actually represents Taiwan. The pan-blues have consistently claimed since the presidential election that it was a fraud, and that Chen does not have a legitimate mandate, despite the lack of evidence to support such a claim. They have also presented the legislative elections as a "referendum" on the DPP government which the government "lost." The pan-blues have, therefore, despite their list of what should have been catastrophic electoral checks over the past five years, still present themselves as a legitimate voice for the people of Taiwan, and a voice that China is happy to deal with.