Chinese overtures to Taiwan may mark time following the passing of Liao Chengzhi, the Chinese leader most prominently identified with both the Taiwan and Hong Kong issues.
The immediate emphasis here seems to be to get the Hong Kong issue settled first. If Hong Kong is seen to retain its economic prosperity under an essentially free-enterprise system even after sovereignty reverts to China, this could become a powerful argument in Peking's effort to achieve the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland.
As regards Hong Kong policy, the Chinese leadership appears to have designated Xi Zhongxun, a Politburo and Secretariat member who is a former governor of Guangdong Province, as the successor to Mr. Liao, who passed on here June 10.
As regards Taiwan, however, no successor is immediately in sight. At the time of his sudden passing, Mr. Liao was slated to become vice-president of China. Speaking fluent Japanese and English, Mr. Liao had excellent contacts in Japan and the United States.
He also knew well the overseas Chinese communities. Mr. Liao was one of the few top Chinese leaders who personally knew Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo, today President of Kuomintang-ruled Taiwan.
Mr. Liao's father, Liao Chung-kai, was one of the founders of the Kuomintang, and his mother, He Xiangning, was also a revolutionary well-known among overseas Chinese. Liao himself worked under Chou En-lai's instructions during the war against Japan, first in Hong Kong, then in northern Guangdong. After victory and before the civil war, he was for awhile in Nanking, the Kuomintang capital.
No current top Chinese leader has Mr. Liao's qualifications or his wide range of contacts with Kuomintang figures and with noncommunist Chinese in general.
Taiwan has continually rebuffed Peking's overtures, including a letter Mr. Liao wrote to Chiang Ching-kuo last year. Peking has shown a certain sense of urgency, saying that reunification should be achieved during the lifetime of present leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Yet Taiwanese opinionmakers often take the opposite tack, maintaining that reunification is not possible until President Chiang and others of his generation have passed from the scene.
Meanwhile, a new generation is coming to the fore in Taiwan. Many of its representatives are technocrats, who may have been born on the mainland, but whose adult career has been spent in Taiwan planning and promoting the extraordinary economic growth the island has experienced during the past 20 years.
On the mainland also, the session of the National People's Congress just concluded has named two new deputy premiers and several new ministers. Both deputy premiers Li Peng and Tian Jiyun, are in their mid-50s.
Mr. Li's career in some respects parallels that of Taiwan's Premier Sun Yun-Suan, in that he is by profession an electrical engineer who worked on many large power projects before achieving ministerial rank. Western observers here believe that ultimately, if Taiwan and China are to be united peacefully, it will not be on the basis of old political ties of the kind represented by the late Mr. Liao.
Rather it would be on the basis of China's continued success in modernization and a lessening of the gap in living standards between the mainland and Taiwan. Evidence of stability and prosperity on the mainland would lessen Taiwan's fear of the mainland, and with Peking promising autonomy and its own defense forces to Taiwan, a process of substantive negotiation could begin.
In any such process, people of technocratic background on both sides of the Taiwan Strait might have a greater chance of success than politicians hampered by considerations of face and memories of the unhappy past.