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Chinese peace feelers

THERE ARE obvious reasons and not-so-obvious reasons to applaud the unprecedented visit to Beijing by the leader of Taiwan's Nationalist Party, Lien Chan. It is certainly better for leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to be settling their quarrels by political means rather than peremptory declarations or threats of force. Subtler effects of Lien's overture may also become evident in political changes both on democratic Taiwan and on the Communist-dominated mainland.

Lien's motive was transparently political. When he met with China's President Hu Jintao Friday, he was not merely staging a reconciliation between those bitter 20th century enemies the Communists and the Kuomintang; he was also upstaging his domestic rival, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian.

The popularity of the visit is reflected not only in polls taken on Taiwan but also in the reaction of Chen, the twice-elected president who was backed off a bit from his accustomed support of Taiwan's independence. To catch up with his Nationalist Party rival, Chen let it be known that he is passing a conciliatory message to leaders on the mainland through James Soong, leader of a small party that opposes independence but is allied with Chen's Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan's Parliament. Soong will be going to China Thursday. The fact that he, a known opponent of independence, is to carry Chen's message to Beijing demonstrates the robust good health of Taiwan's democratic politics. Chen added to that impression Monday when he said that Lien's visit may lead to ''direct government-to-government talks in the future."

Chen made a similar point Sunday when he said about Lien's Beijing visit: ''Although there are many parts of the Kuomintang's so-called vision that the government cannot agree with, we accept that these are their opinions, and different political parties have different views." This note of tolerance and pluralism sounded by Chen represents more than a gracious way of making a virtue of necessity. Chen was also evoking, indirectly, a crucial difference between the authoritarian one-party system of the mainland's Communists and Taiwan's democracy.

The ultimate benefit of Lien's trip may have less to do with its effect on Taiwan than with its reverberations on the mainland. Lien was showing China's Communist leaders that they have more to gain by taking advantage of the rough-and-tumble of Taiwan politics than by mounting missiles on their side of the strait and passing an antisecession law meant to intimidate the population on Taiwan.

The unmistakable lesson for the people on the mainland is that Taiwan's multiparty democracy is more resilient, more peaceful, and more civilized than the Communists' authoritarian one-party state.

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