China congress highlights contrast with Taiwan

While ties between China and Taiwan may be closer than at any time since they split in a civil war, the staid, formal Communist Party congress being held in Beijing highlights how far apart the two sides are politically.

"Taiwan's democracy has learned from the United States,'' said Wang Yingying, who moved from eastern China to Taiwan in 2005 with her Taiwanese spouse. "We in China cannot vote for our national leaders. Mainland politics are backward, Taiwan's democracy is much better.''

With a population 50 times bigger and an economy 15 times greater, China overshadows Taiwan in almost every respect. But one area where Taiwan is envied by many in China is its freewheeling political system.

Split since Mao Zedong's Communist forces drove Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist government from the mainland, China and Taiwan used to engage in a propaganda and ideological war against each other. Since Taiwan jettisoned one-party rule in the 1980s and moved toward democracy, the competition for hearts and minds continues but is more low-key.

"There is now no excuse for the Chinese government to tell its people that Chinese culture is somehow at odds with democracy,'' said Emile Sheng, who served as culture minister during Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's just-completed first term. "Taiwan's experience proves this wrong.''

Stepped-up trade and travel between China and Taiwan as well as a revival in longstanding cultural and social ties are all carrying Taiwan's success with democracy to mainlanders. Wang, the mainlander bride, is one of 300,000 Chinese spouses living in Taiwan. More than 2 million Chinese tourists travel to Taiwan every year, often holing up in their hotels to watch Taiwan's many politically relentless all-news television stations.

China's ruling Communists continue to hail their model as superior, noting its state-directed economy has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in recent decades and government policies have warded off the recession and weak growth that have wracked the West during the past four years. In his opening speech to the congress Thursday, President Hu Jintao said China would never adopt a Western-style political system.

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