- - Thursday, February 13, 2014

This week’s visit to China by a minister-level Taiwanese official — the first in the 65 years since the communists took over the mainland — has evoked a media frenzy focused on the itinerary and protocols.

But the real highlight has been a soft-toned speech by the visiting chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council to which China’s state-run media have given little attention.

Addressing more than 200 Chinese university students, the Taiwanese official — Wang Yu-chi — discussed the virtues of democracy and freedom.

“The ubiquitous chase by journalists, unrelenting media coverage of your activities by the no-stone-unturned press and by these all-knowing commentators, in addition to the full scrutiny by the legislators in the parliament, makes being a government official in Taiwan a very hard life,” Mr. Wang told a mostly-stoic Chinese audience at Nanjing University. “But I think that reflects the core value of a democracy.”

“Democracy is not perfect but government officials [under Taiwan’s democracy] are averse to abuse of power and cheating precisely because of this type of public scrutiny. This is the lifestyle of which we are very proud,” he said.

Despite the Beijing media’s low-key reporting of the speech, Mr. Wang’s words — and comments about them — are rippling throughout China’s online discussion forums.

Government corruption is rife in China, fueling public disenchantment and outrage that threaten the communist regime’s image, authenticity and longevity. President Xi Jinping has made weeding out corrupt officials the centerpiece of his ideological agenda.

Noting China’s loss of cultural and historic sites in recent decades, Mr. Wang juxtaposed Taiwan’s cultural preservation efforts amid the island nation’s rapidzmodernization.

Taiwan has always endeavored to preserve Chinese traditional culture,” he said. “Influenced by the modern values of democracy, science and freedom, we have developed a Chinese culture with Taiwanese characteristics whose core value lies in the spirits of pluralism, diligence, honesty and tolerance.”

A Chinese professor in the audience apparently resented Mr. Wang’s reference to “building a rich and civilized society” as a dig at the newly-prosperous China.

“As part of China, what responsibility and role should Taiwan have?” the professor asked.

Mr. Wang said he was merely expressing Taiwan’s perspective, adding that it is up to his Chinese audience to judge whether his views are useful.

China has never relented on its threat to annex Taiwan, known in Chinese political parlance as “reunification with the motherland.”

The two sides across the Taiwan Straits are in a de facto arms race, with Beijing far ahead in developing key offensive weapon systems, including thousands of missiles.

Mr. Wang was more direct in addressing China’s military threat.

“Weakness is evil, but strength without violence is beauty,” he said, citing a famous Chinese scholar. “Both sides of the Taiwan Straits bear the responsibility for making efforts to preserve peace in the region.”

Continuing an oblique criticism of China’s military threat, he said that “in the process of promoting a Chinese cultural revival, what the Taiwanese people would like to see is not just military power, but a princely spirit conducive to advancing peace in our region.”

Mr. Wang’s itinerary did not include Beijing, but it began with Nanjing, the capital of the Republic of China before 1949, when the Nationalist government was chased out to Taiwan. After his speech, Mr. Wang made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China.

He is scheduled to return to Taipei on Valentine’s Day.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_miles.

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