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China congress highlights contrast with Taiwan, amid continuing struggle for influence

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.

"There is a contest of ideology between China and Taiwan," said political scientist George Tsai of Taipei's Chinese Culture University. "It is dictatorship versus democracy. Many people are wondering if Taiwan's model of democracy is appropriate for China's future."

Sheng, the former culture minister, said a high watermark for Taiwan's influence came earlier this year when millions of politically literate mainlanders closely followed Taiwan's hard-fought presidential election between Ma and challenger Tsai Ing-wen.

He said the thousands of favorable comments that appeared on Chinese blogs — which mainlanders use to skirt government restrictions on officially sanctioned media — left little doubt that some in China had been won over by the vibrancy of the Taiwanese system.

"They were really taken with the openness of the electoral process, the way the candidates conducted themselves, the graciousness of Tsai's concession speech after she lost," he said.

Despite Sheng's optimism, even some Chinese impressed by Taiwan's democratic transition believe it is naive to assume that a robust democratic system can take root on the mainland anytime soon. Decades of repressive policies mean there is no ready opposition party, and many Chinese fear the chaos that might result from a collapse of the Communist Party. Then there's the leadership's resistance to losing power.

"They realize what kind of purge they could expect if democracy ever came," mainlander Eric Zhang wrote in a recent post on Sina Corp.'s popular Weibo service, a Chinese version of Twitter. "They would no doubt fight democracy as if their lives depended on it."