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Taiwan High on China Legislative Agenda


Some 3,000 delegates to China's legislature, the National People's Congress, meet in Beijing Saturday for their annual session. High on the agenda will be the passage of a new law to warn Taiwan against declaring independence.

China has long claimed Taiwan as its territory and warned that it might resort to force to prevent the island from becoming independent. Political analysts say Beijing has become increasingly worried in recent years about Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's apparent moves toward independence.

Kenneth Lieberthal, a China scholar at the University of Michigan, says the anti-secession law reflects the concern of Chinese leaders. "They wanted to find something that made their threats to prevent Taiwan independence by force if necessary credible, without actually having to use force to demonstrate that," he said.

Mr. Lieberthal says Beijing decided to introduce the anti-secession law before Taiwan's legislative elections last December, which, as it turned out, gave the anti-independence camp more seats.

Mr. Lieberthal says Chinese leaders were pleased with the result, but thought it was too late to back off from the anti-secession law. "The Chinese are now saying this law will be very moderate in its language. But what's moderate in Beijing and what's considered moderate in Taiwan don't necessarily coincide, so they risk a substantial reaction that will raise tensions for some period of time."

Already, Taiwanese President Chen has said that the planned law is casting a dark cloud over relations with the mainland. China analysts say Beijing still wants long-term stability with Taiwan, and it regards military action as a last resort. But they say that if the law contains sharp threats, it could provoke another cycle of confrontation across the Taiwan Strait.

The anti-secession law tops the legislative agenda, but China scholars say just as important is what happens behind the scenes at the National People's Congress.

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin is expected to retire from his last post as chairman of the state Central Military Commission. That move will complete the formal transition of power to current President Hu Jintao.

But Jing Huang, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C., says that Mr. Hu still needs to consolidate his authority over the Chinese Communist Party. "We already know Hu Jintao has introduced a new campaign called "new education," in which all the cadres, especially high-ranking cadres, have to go through this campaign, go through the new education campaign, to make sure that they will be in line with Hu Jintao. It's almost like loyalty education."

Mr. Huang says that at face value, Mr. Hu's old-style Communist campaign appears to be a step backward from previous reform efforts.

But he argues that Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao need to become confident about their power base before they can move ahead with future reforms. Mr. Huang says, "because of the nature of the Communist political system, the only way they know how to consolidate their power is through centralization, politically and economically."

Mr. Huang says that this National People's Congress may begin to show how powerful Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen really are. It may also reveal how much opposition there is to Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen from hard-line politicians.

In the long term, many China scholars consider Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen to be cautious political reformers who want the government to propel economic development more effectively.

Mr. Lieberthal adds, "So they're looking to make changes to make the political system more transparent, more effective, with higher quality people, to reduce the role of the political system in governing the economy and society and let other forces operate more freely, but at same time, keep enough executive authority to make the tough decisions to break eggs to make their development omelet."

This year, the Chinese state media has devoted unprecedented attention to the National People's Congress. Analysts say leaders want to show the increasing importance of the legislative process in China. But most agree that it will be many years before China's leaders embrace democratization as part of their reform agenda.