What if Beijing's increasingly pragmatic leaders suddenly allowed Taiwan to have normal diplomatic relations with other countries? That is one of the most interesting possibilities being discussed by Chinese intellectuals at home and abroad. Yet Taiwan's international isolation is to a certain extent its own fault. The Taiwanese love to wallow in self-pity about their status as the 'orphans of Asia', yet sometimes that orphanage place is self-imposed. A good example was an international conference held this week near Taipei to honour Taiwan-born Nobel laureate Lee Yuan-tseh's 70th birthday. Dr Lee, who won a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1986, has probably done more to bring Taiwan out of its isolation than anyone else over the past two decades. As the president of Taiwan's highest academic institution, the Academia Sinica, Dr Lee has used his prestige to secure state funding to create world-class research programmes. He has opened the doors of Taiwan's previously parochial graduate schools and research institutes to foreign students and scientists, and encouraged Taiwanese to study and publish abroad. Despite these efforts, Dr Lee and conference organisers were roundly condemned in the local Taiwanese press for spending over US$150,000 to accommodate the more than 100 international experts and five Nobel laureates who attended the conference. Taiwanese politics, as usual, was partly to blame. Most of Taiwan's mainstream media supports the KMT-led opposition, and has never forgiven Dr Lee for interfering in politics and endorsing President Chen Shui-bian in 2000. But, at a more basic level, Taiwanese across the political spectrum are simply uncomfortable with the idea that they have to pay a premium to attract talent from overseas. While Singapore, Hong Kong and even mainland China make generous offers to attract top researchers from overseas, a full professor at a Taiwanese university may make as little as US$50,000 per year. Another example is a programme intended to bring thousands of qualified foreign teachers to teach English in Taiwanese schools. It has almost collapsed, after local teachers bitterly complained that the foreign teachers were being paid twice as much as them. Without that incentive, the programme has found it difficult to attract and retain more than a handful of teachers. Taiwan's foreign-aid programmes are also often the target of nativist objections that the island should solve its own social problems before donating abroad. But the island could win many friends in developing countries if it would untie aid from diplomatic recognition. The mainland is indeed responsible for much of Taiwan's isolation. But the tendency to impose Taiwanese standards on the outside world also hinders many opportunities for international co-operation.