BEIJING - Two years ago, China's prime minister warned the people of Taiwan that if they voted for the island's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, China would be furious. Vote for the DPP, he said, and "you won't get another opportunity to regret."
Last week, in an about-face, one of China's vice premiers invited members of the DPP to tour China as informal guests.
What a difference a couple of elections make.
In 2000, the leader of the DPP, Chen Shui-bian, won election as Taiwan's president. In December, his party won a sweeping victory in legislative elections, making the DPP Taiwan's most powerful party with its pro-independence policy intact.
China is reaching out to its erstwhile nemesis in hope of wielding some influence on the island. Beijing views democratic Taiwan as a part of China and is worried that the people there are moving away from reunification.
Chinese officials "are trying to be pragmatic," said a Beijing-based diplomat. "They understand the implications of the recent legislative elections."
The Taiwan Strait, separating Taiwan from China, is one of the world's great potential trouble spots. On its western shore is a country of 1.3 billion people ruled by authoritarians struggling to keep up with China's rapidly changing society. On Taiwan, less than one-hundredth China's size, are 23 million people who increasingly see themselves as having a separate identity from the mainland.
Beijing views the island as a runaway province and has threatened to reunify through war if necessary. The Communist Party considers Taiwan's return one of its top goals. By virtue of its size and influence, China might have already pressured Taiwan to reunify if not for the island's major benefactor, the United States.
But just as the Communist Party has had to acknowledge political realities in Taiwan, it also faces an increasingly pluralistic society at home.
Many Chinese strongly support the government's position on Taiwan. With greater exposure to the outside world, though, people are developing more nuanced and contrary views on a range of issues - from press freedom in China to Taiwan's future.
Consider Yang Yunzhen, 28, who teaches a course called "Construction of the Communist Party" at a Communist Party school in central China designed to train party elites.
Yang said that she opposes Taiwanese independence on the grounds that Taiwan is a part of China but that China could learn from Taiwan's democratic system - and should apply the lessons slowly.
"If the mainland adopts the system of Taiwan right now, there could be chaos," said Yang, echoing a common fear here about sudden political change. But she predicted that sometime in the distant future, China would hold general elections. "We ought to be able to do it," she said, standing in the Xidan Book Plaza, the city's largest. "That's the destination of democratization."
As Yang talked, a man reading nearby entered the conversation.
"Taiwan is like a child, the mainland is like a parent," said Zhang Chunbo, 25, who works at a fashion company in Xidan, one of the capital's main shopping districts. "When the child is naughty, the parents just take care of them" - that is, punish them.
Like most Chinese, Zhang also believes Taiwan is a part of China. Asked how he knows this, he said he read it in school.
China has a strong patriotic education system that emphasizes Beijing's historical claims to Taiwan. Every seventh-grader is required to read Political Thought, a textbook that serves as a guide about how to be a good socialist.
"The sea water has cut off the blood ties between the people of Taiwan and the mainland motherland!" says the book, which notes that the Communist Party has proposed a peaceful reunification. "This expresses the strong wish of all Chinese people, including the Taiwan brothers."
Most of the "Taiwan brothers" would actually prefer to maintain the status quo, rather than risk either unification or a declaration of independence. They fear that a formal declaration of independence would invite a Chinese attack.
The Communist Party still controls the syllabus here, but its propaganda machine does not have the influence it once exercised. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China was closed to the outside world and Mao manipulated tens of millions of people to think as he wished.
Today, the party competes with the Internet, pirated DVDs of Hollywood films and a growing variety of ideas. While nationalistic sentiment runs high in China, some question the regime's threatening stance toward Taiwan.
"There is a saying, 'If you win people's hearts, you can win everything under heaven,'" Zhang said. "Whether Taiwan returns or not is not that significant to common Chinese citizens."
What might matter more is that economic relations between China and Taiwan are booming. Taiwanese firms have invested more than $60 billion in China since the early 1990s, and at least tens of thousands of Taiwanese live and work here.
In the past decade, young people have focused more on Taiwanese music and TV shows than the nuances of diplomatic relations. Among the imports from Taiwan are the songs of Ah-mei, a diminutive Taiwanese diva with a spunky personality and a flair for dancing. In 1999, she drew 45,000 people to a raucous concert at Beijing's Workers' Stadium.
Ah-mei also adorned billboards for Sprite and was seen as transcending Taiwan's and China's political differences. But in 2000, Ah-mei sang the Taiwanese national anthem at the inauguration of President Chen Shui-bian. Mainland officials banned her performances and withdrew her music videos from state-run television. Coca-Cola, which owns Sprite, dumped her as a pitch woman under government pressure.
At the Music Book Store in Wangfujing, Beijing's other major shopping district, sales of Ah-mei's CDs plummeted from an average of 100 a month to 30 to 40, according to Liu Guotong, a 34-year-old salesman.
"It had a bad effect on her business, because Chinese reject Taiwanese independence," said Liu, who grew up in East China's Shandong province. Liu said he wasn't sure the island was worth fighting for, but he supported reunification, by force if necessary: "If Taiwan declares independence, it's like someone punching their fist into the mainland."
Eighteen-year-old Bao Shan- shan, a student at Beijing's No. 3 High School, is a big Ah-mei fan and owns four of her CDs. Bao attended Ah-mei's 1999 performance and thought the show was fabulous. Retaliating against the entertainer for participating in the inauguration is silly, she said.
The ban on Ah-mei ended last summer, and she returned to the mainland for two concerts. One was held in the southwestern city of Chongqing on July 13, the night Beijing won its bid to hold the 2008 Summer Olympics.
As news broke that the Olympics were coming to China, Ah-mei led the crowd in a patriotic song: "Sing in Praise of the Motherland."