The success of Peking's campaign to reunite peacefully with Taiwan depends, in the long run, on the island's "silent majority." So far, Peking has concentrated its propaganda almost entirely on the mainlanders, who constitute less than one-fifth of Taiwan's 18 million people.
Marshal Ye Jianying's nine-point offer of Sept. 30 was directed at the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party, whose leaders fled to the island when the mainland fell to the communist in 1949.
Nationalist leaders have rejected the offer. But whether this is Taiwan's final word remains to be seen.
Still, in time, Peking's campaign for increased communications between Taiwan and the mainland could have an effect on aging mainlanders eager to catch a glimpse of their native provinces or to be reunited with their relatives.
But for the vast majority of native-born Taiwanese, the replacement of the Kuomintang by the communists would only mean the substitution of one mainlander regime by another. They may not like the Kuomintang, but they know it, whereas the communists are a completely unknown factor.
Peking's instrument for reaching the Taiwanese is an organization called the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, one of the eight noncommunist parties allowed to coexist on the mainland with the Communists.
In an appeal supporting Marshal Ye's proposals, the League's vice chairman, Li Chunging, noted that although the proposed talks are to take place between the Communist party and the Kuomintang, Marshal Ye also called reunification of the motherland the "responsibility of all Chinese."
He asked for people of "all nationalities, public figures of all circles and all mass organizations in Taiwan" to come forward with proposals and suggestions.
But this offer does not compare in detail or scope with the invitation to the Kuomintang, an invitation which offers not only the de facto continuation of the rulership of Taiwan but also a role in the national leadership in Peking as will.
Taiwan does have a small, vigorous independence movement, most of whose leaders are in exile in the United States. But the majority of native-born Taiwanese are nonpolitical proud of the economic gains they have achieved through their own hard work, and fearful of what a communist takeover would mean in terms of their own way of living.
To reach and persuade these people, what Peking does on the mainland itself will be more important than any gestures or offers to the ruling elite on Taiwan.
If trends toward economic liberalization, with greater scope for local decisionmaking and for a degree of individual enterprise, continue; if standards of living improve, particularly in the coastal provinces closest to Taiwan; if the Communist Party broadens its appeal to noncommunists by opening up more jobs to nonparty members (this is barely beginning at the factory and commune level) -- in short, if the mainland itself is seen as a more attractive and pleasant plce to live and work, then gradually some of the islanders' present fears and suspicions may begin to dissolve.
It is a process that cannot be hurried, but if China's leaders mean what they say about "peaceful reunification" it seems the only way that offers a reasonable chance of success.