Taipei, Taiwan -- Only a few months ago, peace seemed to be at hand in the three Chinas. On the mainland, the People's Republic of China was opening up economically, and it was assumed that political openness would follow the deaths of the last of the old men of the communist revolution that prevailed in 1949.
Taiwan, the island the losing Nationalist Chinese proclaimed the Republic of China, had become the largest investor on the mainland, beginning to put together economically what had been torn asunder politically 46 years ago.
And Hong Kong, the Chinese island leased to (or stolen by) Great Britain a century ago, was once again to be joined to the mainland by treaty in 1997 under a process that fading communists like to call "One China, Two Systems."
Then, it seemed, China would become a new superpower, joining in new prosperity and peaceful economic cooperation in competition with Japan in Asia and the United States in the world. In fact, the East Asia Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of Defense concludes: "We welcome the growing dialogue between Taipei and Beijing and applaud actions on both sides which increase the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the situation in the Taiwan Strait."
Ah, the dreams of yesterday. Once again the world, including many of the tens of millions of offshore Chinese, have misjudged the intentions of the leaders of the more than 1 billion Chinese on the mainland that always called itself "the Middle Kingdom," the center of the world.
Now, just north of Taiwan, missiles from the mainland are plopping into the sea. They are unarmed, though capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The Chinese say all the splashing is just routine military exercises. To the south, in Hong Kong, some of the people who only months ago were insisting that they would not even consider leaving the old Crown Colony when it reverts to Chinese rule in two years, sound more and more as if they will be gone by that time, when the world learns whether the Chinese meant what they said about two systems.
People on both islands are ready to run. It is estimated that one of five people living in Hong Kong carry foreign passports; many of them can legally flee to the United States, Canada or Australia. On Taiwan, where 100,000 nationalist followers of Chiang Kai-shek fled in 1949 -- and have politically controlled the island until the past couple of years -- there are 31,000 residents holding U.S. passports. People who were so hopeful only a short time ago are remembering a salient fact about the old and new men who run the People's Republic: They are bullies in the grand Chinese tradition.
Experts of various kinds are beginning to admit that there is no way to tell how the mainlanders will act the day after they take over Hong Kong or would act if they get their missiles or hands on Taiwan. To Beijing, Taiwan is an outlaw province; they see it the way Yankees saw South Carolina in 1861.
The causes for the turnaround in attitudes and predictions seem to be events trivial to most Americans and other outsiders. First, Beijing went ballistic when Lee Teng-hui, the president of Taiwan, who was born there, was able to get a visa to travel to the United States for a class reunion and honorary degree from Cornell University, his alma mater. (Fourteen of the 20 members of the Taiwan Cabinet are American-educated, a holdover from the days before 1979 when Washington officially recognized Taiwan as the legal government of all China.)
Beijing's next move was to arrest an American citizen, Harry Wu, a zealous, perhaps overzealous, dissident who was going back into China to cause trouble for the communists. And, in Washington at the same time, members of Congress surprised the world by announcing a tribute to Madame Chiang Kai-shek, now 98 years old -- the surprise was that the lady was still alive.
Why do Chinese leaders find these things so threatening? No one knows. Does the Chinese leadership believe the United States is trying to provoke or insult Beijing by a thousand cuts? Or are they just ignorant of the modern world that they so recently seemed desperate to become part of?
Random ignorance, I think, has a lot to do with it. As smart as some are, Chinese leaders have had very limited experience outside the Middle Kingdom. The last time I was in Beijing, a year ago, someone in the government held a press conference to discuss U.S. complaints about bootleg tapes, CDs and videos made illegally in southern China. The guy got carried away and announced the government was prepared to punish copyright violations and such with the death penalty.
Are the mainlanders that crazy? By our standards they may just be. That's why so many Hong Kong Chinese and Taiwan Chinese have their bags packed and their papers in order.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.