BEIJING - The last time leaders of the Nationalist Party were in China, they were in the south and on the run.
It was late 1949 and the Nationalist - or KMT - Party of Chiang Kai-shek had just lost the civil war to the Communists. Chiang and his followers didn't stop running until they had fled the mainland for Taiwan.
Now, 56 years later, the KMT leadership is back for the first time on Chinese soil, being welcomed to Beijing by the Communist Party during a symbolic visit that could generate enough goodwill to lead to a breakthrough in the tense China-Taiwan relationship.
Or it could end up a fizzled political stunt by the KMT and its chairman, Lien Chen, because he holds no power at home. Taiwan's president is Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party.
But Lien is still the most important Taiwanese political figure ever to come to communist China, and however his visit plays out, it has led to a series of unexpected juxtapositions: The chairman of the KMT visiting Chiang's palace in the old KMT capital of Nanjing and then flying to Beijing to tour the Forbidden City, which is empty of antiquities because they were whisked to Taiwan by the KMT in the late 1940s.
Today, Lien is to address students at Peking University before meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao. China and Taiwan are bitter political rivals, the threat of war looming always in the background. A Taiwanese leader has never visited China. Lien was able to come because he does not represent Taiwan's government.
Lien, who was born in China, declared that his delegation is in China on a "journey of peace," but the politics of Taiwan and China are so complex and emotionally charged on all sides that his visit cannot be whittled down to a peace slogan.
When he left Taipei earlier in the week, there was a near-riot at the airport between supporters of President Chen and the KMT, with members of the rival groups scuffling and throwing eggs.
Analysts say Lien's visit to China comes down to a political calculation on every side: Lien's KMT party, which wants to recapture the presidency; President Chen, who could have thwarted the visit; and Beijing, which alternately shows its tough and conciliatory sides to Taipei. The visit is something of a puzzle, because it isn't clear what message Lien will bring to China's president when they meet. China-Taiwan relations have been icy lately, in the wake of China's approval of a new anti-secession law that codifies the threat to attack Taiwan should it ever declare official independence.
Lien could give Hu a tough message, asking China to back down from its confrontational stance and somehow paving the way for more talks. It is also possible he could overstep his bounds. But he can't sign any official deals.
Lien's visit to China lacks some symbolism because there are thousands of Taiwanese already visiting and working here.
"It would be much more historic if Chen Shui-bian were making this trip," said J. Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Australia's Monash University.
China's government has embraced Lien's visit, both as a way of reassuring Taiwan and the international community that it can be reasonable and in an effort to deflate Chen's Democratic Progressive Party. The Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, put Lien's visit on its front page Wednesday, declaring that the visit would improve relations with Taiwan and "stop the conspiracy" of Taiwanese separatism.
Philip Yang of National Taiwan University called Lien's trip to China "historic" but symbolic.
"I don't think he can bring back any concrete results," Yang said, "because he's not in a position to do that."
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.