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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Message

4 minute read

He walks in, smiles, sits down. under his arm is a small blue box, the obligatory Chinese gift for visitors. The suit fits perfectly. His English, polished at Harvard, flows like hot green tea with honey. He settles back into his chair, looks you deep in the eyes and begins the seduction. “Zhou Mingwei,” says a U.S. official, “is the best salesman the Chinese have.”

How do you begin with a new U.S. Administration? Not well, from China’s perspective. In the past two weeks, Washington has been hosing down China with acid, suggesting that a high-tech Chinese fiber-optic system was helping Saddam or last week announcing plans for a protest of Chinese human-rights violations. George Bush promised during the campaign that he would not make the Clintonian “mistake” of treating the Chinese as “strategic partners.” Enough to rattle windows in Beijing. “Jesus,” says a diplomat who helped press the pillowy strategy of trade and talk in the ’90s. “Talk about a Great Wall.”

And into this walks the master salesman. Zhou is the Deputy Minister for Taiwan Affairs. He is young for the jobin his mid-40s in a government and culture where real responsibility generally arrives at around 60. Zhou’s years of studies in the U.S. were what qualified him for his last job, as the guy in Shanghai responsible for playing host to foreign big shots, such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and GE’s Jack Welch. Zhou picked up their style. But his politics are old China.

Taiwan is Chinese politics packed into an explosive package. For 50 years, Beijing has been married to the return of Taiwan. Negotiation seemed the best solution until last year when pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian won election in Taipei. The win shocked Beijing. The professional Taiwan watchers there, who failed to call the outcome, were suddenly looking for new jobs. Enter Zhou. When he arrived in the U.S. for quiet talks with the new Administration, Zhou carried Beijing’s latest ideas on Taiwan, polished by his modern sensibilities, though still hewn from the rough stone of Chinese insistence. It was a low-key visit, but Zhou did find time to sit down and explain a linguistic tweak he had been peddling around town.

For years Beijing has insisted that “Taiwan is a part of ‘one China.'” But, says Zhou, from now on the Chinese government will insist that “the mainland and Taiwan both belong to ‘one China.'” Catch the difference? In the old version of the sentence, Taiwan is presented as a part of China. In the new sentence, Taiwan and the mainland are positioned as parts of the same entity. That means the two sides can talk as equals. Except for one thing: the alternative to reunification, Zhou made clear, is war. Beijing is asking Taiwan, again, to negotiate with a gun at its head.

So the U.S. will go ahead and sell Taiwan a new arms package, a thing Zhou hoped to dilute by his visit. And Taiwan will continue to cherish its independence. China offers Taiwan reunification with the chance to keep its army and its government and not pay a penny in taxes. But Taipei has those things already. So Zhou and his colleagues face the ultimate salesman’s challenge: selling something the customer doesn’t want and doesn’t need.

While Washington has been clear that it has certain things it wants from Russiafresh talks on missile defense, among themthe new crew has asked nothing from China. Asked last week what, if anything, the Administration could want, a U.S. official paused a long time. “Nothing,” he said. “What we want from China right now is consistency.” And though the message of “negotiate or fight” has been consistent, that is not what the Bush Administration means. It wants consistent softness: on human rights, on trade and on Taiwan. It is the one thing both Taipei and Washington are interested in, but also the one thing salesman Zhou didn’t have anywhere in his sample case.

* China doesn’t have the hardware to win a battle against Taiwan. But China analysts say just the idea of invading Taiwan is helpful for China’s army. It gives them something to plan for. Train to take Taiwan, the argument goes, and you’ll be ready to take on the world.

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