"The pen is mightier than the sword." For nearly a decade, Brahm has used newspaper articles, magazines and authored over 20 books to explain current affairs, reshape stalled negotiations, and provide a communication platform to Asian leaders and policymakers. His writings reveal underlying central challenges facing Asia over the past decades.

The value of Listening

Written by Laurence Brahm - Published by South China Morning Post on 11/30/2004

It is easy to assume that Beijing and Taipei have a clear picture of what the other is thinking, given 50 years of cross-strait mutual distrust, tension and close observation. But assuming too much is dangerous. Official communications, highly restricted by both sides, pre-empt the kind of open dialogue that is now badly needed. Sadly, unofficial contacts are limited to academics who lack sufficient channels to pass on the messages.

This leaves both sides relying on official statements to assess what the other is thinking. So, when rhetoric turns up on one side, the other follows suit, limiting, rather than opening, dialogue possibilities.

The State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office frequently reacts to President Chen Shui-bian’s statements, which often appear inconsistent, stoking Beijing’s distrust. But the mainland government has difficulty understanding Taiwan’s local politics, where Mr. Chen has a thin majority, and control involves brokering the divergent, polemic interests. Frequently changing stance on issues has proved to be Mr. Chen’s formula for maintaining power.

He seems to be doing a U-turn again, but this time, it may be in Beijing’s interests. If it can grasp the window of opportunity, history could be changed. Is the Taiwan Affairs Office fully aware of this? From a press conference held by its spokesman, Li Weiyi (???), on November 17, it appears not.

When asked about Taiwan’s “positive attitude” concerning direct cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year, Mr.Li dismissed this, saying that Taiwan’s position of “one nation on each side” created an impasse. Beijing insists on using the term “domestic,” not “international,” in designating flight status.

But Taipei’s position could be more flexible than the Taiwan office realizes. Perhaps the commercial carriers should be allowed to talk; they may come up with a pragmatic solution.

On another issue, Mr. Li accused Mr. Chen of initiating an “education revolution” by promoting independence through a proposal to label Sun Yat-sen (???) a “foreigner” in a school textbook. Sun has always been recognized by both communist and Kuomintang parties as the “father of modern China.” The plan represents a growing movement to eliminate Chinese ethnicity among radical Taiwanese who claim no association with the mainland.

The Taiwan Affairs Office may not be aware that following a recent 16-hour debate at Taiwan’s Education Ministry, Mr. Chen ordered the discussion closed, stating that “there is only one father of our country.” Does this send a signal to Beijing that Mr. Chen does not support, and even opposes, this radical movement?

If Mr. Chen does have a new agenda of dialogue which might lead to unification, rebuffs from Beijing only complicate his ability to placate local extremists when pushing a more rational decision.

But does the Taiwan Affairs Office have its finger on the pulse of changing local political currents in Taipei? An inability to grasp the situation could result in a lost opportunity, leading to further deterioration of the situation. Of course, it is easier and less risky for career bureaucrats to stick with the staid scripts and assumptions. But events underlying these assumptions – like the people involved – can change with the circumstances.

If the inherent dangers were not so serious, the tangled web of disconnected information and assumptions would seem comical in the world of hi-tech communications. But such devices are useless unless people use them to take the initiative. This reality hides an unprecedented opportunity for both sides to move towards a peaceful dialogue that envisions an eventual reunification, possibly under a “one country, three systems” model. The opportunity exists, but both sides must communicate.


Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist and author. He is the leading advocate of a fresh development paradigm - The Himalayan Consensus - an innovative approach to development.

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