By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Taxi drivers are divided between blue and green: if you are not the correct political color, do not get on board. Even food vendors are split, and people try to smell the political orientation of the host before sitting down. Taiwan itself seems divided, with blue in the north and green in the south. The atmosphere is frenzied on the eve of a seemingly momentous January 14 presidential election in the island that is de facto independent, but formally part of one China.
The choice really comes down to incumbent Ma Ying-jiu, of the Nationalist Party (the KMT), representing the blue; and the challenger Tsai Ying-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), green.
The KMT is officially for warmer ties with Taiwan's gigantic neighbor, the Chinese Mainland. The DPP is in theory for a unilateral declaration of independence from the mainland. Ma is ahead in the opinion polls, but Tsai is following close behind, while newspapers debate furiously who will win the vote.
Yet, it is almost sacrilegious to say it, but there is already a winner, even before the first ballot is cast - China's President Hu Jintao.
In Taiwan, both the green and blue sides do not want to admit it because they must downplay - each party for its own reasons - the already strong political influence of the mainland on the island.
In Beijing, the establishment wants to hide at the moment this achievement in reunification with the island while China is deep in preparation for the 18th Communist Party congress next autumn. The congress will choose the new team that will rule China in the coming decade.
Part of the debate in the congress will be about assessing Hu's performance during his tenure: a small or great success in Taiwan could give Hu greater or lesser power in selecting his successors. Moreover, boasting of this success now could be mishandled and misconstrued in Taiwan's frenzied debate.
Hu is de facto the winner because no matter who is elected as Taiwan's president, be it Ma or Tsai, it is impossible for Taiwan to move out from the embrace of the mainland, a conceivable risk a decade ago.
A crowd of economic figures could be offered in support of the inescapability of the embrace: the billions in Taiwanese investment in China (over US$100 billion, allegedly), the importance of Taiwan's trade surplus with the mainland (about one-third of Taiwan's gross domestic product), and the millions of Taiwanese living in the mainland (over 2 million).
Yet these numbers, to a certain extent, were also present 10 years ago. What is totally new is the convenience of communications between Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan, with a score of flights per day and the massive presence on the island of Chinese media and coverage of China in Taiwanese media.
News from China, Chinese tourists, and other visitors - while not yet hordes (their numbers are still limited) - is marking a new presence in the island. Hu has in fact obtained direct air links, naval communications, and telecommunications between the mainland and Taiwan.
This has deepened contacts across the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to an unprecedented level in the history of the island. This, in turn, has made life easier and more practical for millions of Taiwanese. It is impossible to think that Tsai - or whoever becomes the leader - would move back from the present situation.
It is evident certainly that moves forward could be very difficult. A political integration would mean answering very difficult questions: what will happen to the free elections in Taiwan - or to the free press in the island? Do you extend these institutions to China, and if so, when? What do you do with the Taiwanese parties, and how can they talk with the Chinese Communist Party? What role could Taiwan's leaders have in China?
Even if the Taiwanese president were offered the post of vice president of China, as is rumored, the crucial issue would be, could he attend politburo meetings, the real power center of China? If he doesn't, his position would be empty, but if he does, the Communist Party will have to change its ways.
These questions are very hard to answer in Beijing, and therefore the best thing at the moment would be to put them off. Therefore, Hu managed to put Taiwan in an ideal position for Beijing: it is firmly within Beijing's grasp, but nowhere near completing the sensitive political unification.
Hu achieved what was essential for the Chinese domestic agenda a decade ago: halt Taiwan's drift toward independence, something that seemed unstoppable then. Allowing the formal independence of Taiwan, populated by Han people (the majority of the population in China), would have in fact rekindled independence movements in regions of Chinese territories populated by non-Han people.
Hu's success is further proved by the fact that in the past two years, when border incidents exasperated ties with many of China's sea neighbors (South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines), nothing happened with Taiwan, formerly the major trouble spot for Beijing. Ties with Taiwan were safely managed and are even weathering the simmering tension between China and the US, Taiwan's main military partner for many decades.
Hu achieved all of this through a strategy of peaceful development and careful diplomacy and without moving a single soldier or firing one shot. This model then could be replicated and adapted on a larger scale, with all the neighbors and the rest of the world, setting an important precedent for the future of China's international policies.
This is a possible reason why Hu's detractors at home are keen on minimizing his success on the Taiwan issue. If Hu's policy in Taiwan is successful, then what is the use of increased military expenditures? The issue should be to find a new broader political strategy.
The number of missiles pointed at Taiwan could be cut down, thus sending a very significant message to the island and the rest of the world. But a decrease in missiles could hit power bases in a way that would be very important to the choices at the 18th congress.
Then paradoxically, despite Hu's real victory in Taiwan, controversies and polemics in the island reflect back on Beijing. The green or blue anti-Chinese rhetoric fuels the arguments of hawks in Beijing, who argue that peaceful overtures to Taiwan are useless and tougher measures will be needed to confront the island and the world.
The arguments are shortsighted but could gain weight in Beijing with the frantic atmosphere before the congress. In the end, a victory for Tsai in January would change nothing in Taipei, but could change a lot in Beijing by giving more ammunition to the hawks the Taiwanese say they fear the most.
This ironically, proves the growing political interdependence between the two sides of the Taiwan straits. The island political debate influences the mainland in an unprecedented way and in a way unexpected by the Taiwan leaders. This proves that political re-unification is already underway and that as Beijing has cast its shadow on Taipei, also Taipei has cast its on Beijing.