by Joel Brinkley

President Ma Ying-jeou sat at the head of large conference table in his presidential office, and inscribed on the wall behind him was the name of his nation: Republic of China. Beside that, in parentheses and smaller letters, was acknowledgment that he was actually speaking from the island of Taiwan. Ma was participating in a teleconference, addressing an audience at Stanford University and other U.S. locations.

Ma, like every Taiwanese leader for the last 60 years, clings to the conviction that his government is the rightful ruler of that nation called China, while Xi Jinping, president of the People's Republic of China on the mainland, believes there's only "one China," and Taiwan is an integral part of that.

That's been the hard nut at the center of the conflict between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party's military defeated the state's Kuomintang government and drove it off the mainland, to Taiwan.

But the struggle has entered an interesting new phase, and it's not entirely certain who will prevail.

Since Ma first took office in 2008 (he was re-elected last year), he has made improving relations with China his first priority.

Ma noted that when he first took office, "there were no scheduled flights between Taiwan and the mainland. Now there are 616 scheduled flights per week." What's more, 17,000 mainland Chinese students study at Taiwanese universities each year. And a few days ago, the Chinese Business Newswire noted that economic trade between China and Taiwan, at $29.05 billion in the first two months of 2013, grew by 36.4 percent over the previous year. Last month, Taiwan and China agreed to ease investment caps so that each state can now buy larger shares of the other's banks.

For decades China threatened military action to retake Taiwan. But after Ma took office, those threats began to recede, and commerce began picking up. This still worries many Taiwanese, especially opposition Democratic Progressive Party officers who call for maintaining a tough line with China.

Bi Khim Hsiao, who was director of international affairs for the opposition party, once told me that China "isn't using missiles anymore. They're trying to buy us -- use economic leverage in a sophisticated way."

In fact, many farmers and merchants now find themselves dependent on the Chinese market for survival. For many in Taiwan that's a worrying trend. As Bi said, isn't China simply trying to buy Taiwan, as it already has "bought" Cambodia, Mozambique and so many other states with billions of dollars in aid?

No doubt that's China's hope, even though Ma's strategy, stated again during the teleconference, is: "No unification, no independence, no war." But while that threat lingers, Taiwan is actually pursuing its own not-so-public counter-strategy that at first glance isn't so obvious.

With tens of thousands of Chinese now visiting Taiwan, Taiwanese leaders hope these people offer "a shining ray of hope to the 1.3 billion Chinese people on the mainland," as Ma put it. After all, Taiwan, with its 23 million people, is a thriving, prosperous, liberal democracy in every sense of that word -- the first Chinese democracy in history. Isn't that what most mainland Chinese actually want, Ma and others ask?

This may seem like a quixotic endeavor, given that the mainland is a stern authoritarian state whose leaders don't countenance any challenges to their rule. Still, the number of so-called "mass incidents," already tens of thousands a year, is constantly rising. These are major protests over repression, pollution, corruption, home seizures, toxic food and so much more. At the same time, complaints on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, grow more voluminous and acerbic with every passing week.

Most Chinese simply aren't happy with the status quo. Even rich people no longer trust the government. They're sending their money out of the state -- billions of dollars each year. So the question arises: How long can the Communist government survive in this atmosphere of withering public discontent?

Taiwanese officials are asking similar questions. Are thousands of Chinese tourists, businessmen and students going back home with warm visions of a successful democracy in their heads -- and then telling all their friends? Is Taiwan growing to be a powerful democratic role model? (Before taking office, Xi examined the Singapore dictatorship as his own possible role model.)

Projecting a positive image with the hope of turning China into a democracy is at best a mammoth task, and Taiwanese understand that.

As one Taiwan official told me: "It feels like we're a tugboat trying to pull a big ship."


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