A Delicate Balance

China's campuses were abuzz last week. As soon as Taipei's election results flashed through cyberspace, student activists began printing banners and organizing protests to condemn Taiwan separatism. In Sichuan, thousands of Chongqing University students took to the streets, pleading that President Jiang Zemin "send in the PLA... to wipe out Taiwan splittists!" A similar protest erupted in the city of Changchun. Communist Party commissars scurried to cool the nationalist fervor. "Jiang doesn't want a repeat of what happened last May," when howling protesters besieged the U.S. diplomatic buildings after NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy, says one Beijing scholar. "It's a very sensitive moment."

Jiang is on the hot seat. Before Taiwan's polls, his party's propaganda howled that a Chen victory "means war." Beijing had hoped to scare Taiwan, but Jiang is now trying to step back from the brink. Many Chinese took the rhetoric seriously, especially military hard-liners and nationalistic youth, who urge more saber rattling--or worse. So far Jiang has merely stressed Taiwan must return to the "one China" fold. Further bellicosity could bruise Sino-U.S. relations. Washington is making its own jitters known through a handful of cabinet-level delegations. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke got a friendly greeting last week. (Jiang: "You've been to China many more times than I've been to the U.S." Holbrooke: "But your English is better than my Chinese.") After a two-hour meeting with Jiang, Holbrooke said he was "mildly encouraged" by the fact that Beijing and Taipei "have reacted to the new circumstances with prudence and caution."

Jiang has little choice. In May, the U.S. Congress should make a decision crucial to China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The debate focuses on Washington's granting permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) to Beijing. Renewed jingoism or bad news on the human-rights front would fuel efforts by China's critics to scuttle the deal. Last week in an apparent move to head off confrontation, Beijing released information on eight Chinese political prisoners to the U.S.-based Dui Hua Foundation.

Beijing's balancing act--how to be firm on Taiwan without upsetting Sino-U.S. ties--was the focus of a rash of emergency government meetings last week. The message: stick to the party line, no unscripted attacks against Chen. Party propagandists told mainstream newspaper editors not only which words to run when Chen won (China will "wait and see") but where to run them (front page, bottom right).

As if Jiang doesn't have enough to worry about, Chinese have begun musing about what Taiwan's election means for democracy. Political dissident Ren Wanding wrote Jiang an open letter saying the election would "go down in the annals of [China's] development of democracy." Online, one Netizen asked Beijing to "find a democratic way suitable for China--no matter what you call it." He added a warning: "If people become totally disappointed, great turmoil and treason will follow." In the face of such pressures, it won't be easy for Jiang to keep his balance.