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How deep is China-Taiwan thaw?

A Taiwan policy speech last week suggests an emerging generational split in Beijing's leadership.

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Some call it a "breakthrough," an "about face." Others say it shows a "new realism" by China's next generation of leaders. Still others feel a recent opening by China to Taiwan is a mere interlude of good weather prior to US President George Bush's first state visit here next month.

How seriously the world should take recent warming statements by China on its frigid relations with Taiwan is a subject China hands have parsed for a week now.

Yet even while doing so, a major address on Taiwan by China's top diplomat now appears to have caused the first major rift between new and old leaders in Beijing - considered highly unusual in a country known for protocol and for zealously presenting a unified front.

Observers found it significant that both Vice President Hu Jintao and Zeng Qinghong, rumored to be China's No. 1 and No. 2 in a coming leadership change, were on the podium last week as China's most respected diplomat, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, gave a speech suggesting a more flexible position on Taiwan, regarded as the top "flashpoint" in East Asia.

In a sharp break from the past, Mr. Qian invited members of Taiwan's ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP) to China for informal talks, for "sightseeing, to visit in an appropriate status, and to increase understanding." Until last week, Beijing had scarcely even acknowledged that the proindependence DPP even existed.

"Clearly, this was a new position that Hu is behind," says one European-based Beijing scholar, referring to the vice president, who is expected to take charge after the 16th Party Congress next fall. "But [Chinese president] Jiang is not."

Yesterday, a tense flurry of retractions and clarifications, evidently ordered by President Jiang, were issued in official organs, including the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po. Mr. Jiang was reportedly furious at the attempt last week to tactically soften China's policy on Taiwan.

"The one-China policy is our bottom line," said Taiwan Affairs spokesman Zhang Mingqing, in a special press briefing designed to nullify perceptions that Qian's speech represented any change.

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