The value of listening

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 12:00am

It is easy to assume that Beijing and Taipei have a clear picture of what the other is thinking, given 50 years of cross-strait mutual distrust, tension and close observation. But assuming too much is dangerous. Official communications, highly restricted by both sides, pre-empt the kind of open dialogue that is now badly needed. Sadly, unofficial contacts are limited to academics who lack sufficient channels to pass on the messages.

This leaves both sides relying on official statements to assess what the other is thinking. So, when rhetoric turns up on one side, the other follows suit, limiting, rather than opening, dialogue possibilities.

The State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office frequently reacts to Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's statements, which often appear inconsistent, stoking Beijing's distrust. But the mainland government has difficulty understanding Taiwan's local politics, where Mr Chen has a thin majority, and control involves brokering the divergent, polemic interests. Frequently changing his stance on issues has proved to be Mr Chen's formula for maintaining power.

He seems to be doing a U-turn again, but this time, it may be in Beijing's interests. If it can grasp the window of opportunity, history could be changed. Is the Taiwan Affairs Office fully aware of this? From a press conference held by its spokesman, Li Weiyi , on November 17, it appears not.

When asked about Taiwan's 'positive attitude' concerning direct cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year, Mr Li dismissed this, saying that Taiwan's position of 'one nation on each side' created an impasse. Beijing insists on using the term 'domestic', not 'international', in designating flight status.

But Taipei's position could be more flexible than the Taiwan office realises. Perhaps the commercial carriers should be allowed to talk; they may come up with a pragmatic solution.

On another issue, Mr Li accused Mr Chen of initiating an 'education revolution' by promoting Taiwan independence through a proposal to label Sun Yat-sen a 'foreigner' in a school textbook. Sun has always been recognised by both communist and Kuomintang parties as the 'father of modern China'. The plan represents a growing movement to eliminate Chinese ethnicity among radical Taiwanese who claim no association with the mainland.

The Taiwan Affairs Office may not be aware that following a recent 16-hour debate at Taiwan's Education Ministry, Mr Chen ordered the discussion closed, stating that 'there is only one father of our country'. Does this send a signal to Beijing that Mr Chen does not support, and even opposes, this radical movement?

If Mr Chen does have a new agenda of dialogue which might lead to unification, rebuffs from Beijing only complicate his ability to placate local extremists when pushing a more rational position.

But does the Taiwan Affairs Office have its finger on the pulse of changing local political currents in Taipei? An inability to grasp the situation could result in a lost opportunity, leading to further deterioration of the situation. Of course, it is easier and less risky for career bureaucrats to stick with the staid scripts and assumptions. But events underlying these assumptions - like the people involved - can change with the circumstances.

If the inherent dangers were not so serious, the tangled web of disconnected information and assumptions would seem comical in a world of hi-tech communications. But such devices are useless unless people use them to take the initiative. This reality hides an unprecedented opportunity for both sides to move towards a peaceful dialogue that envisions an eventual reunification, possibly under a 'one country, three systems' model. The opportunity exists, but both sides must communicate.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing