Chinese president Hu Jintao has wrapped up his US visit and moved on to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind a host of unresolved issues, plus a persistent feeling that Sino-American economic ties are too important to allow any of them to derail the relationship.

Of all those issues, without question the strangest is the status of Taiwan. I’m quoting from memory, but in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged a character says something to the effect that “Once upon a time people were afraid that someone would reveal a secret of theirs that no-one else knew; now people are afraid that someone will name what everyone already knows.” That’s exactly the situation with Taiwan.

The Chinese demand is that other countries should not recognise Taiwanese independence, and should do nothing that might possibly encourage the Taiwanese goverment to declare independence. But as a simple matter of fact, Taiwan is independent: not just in the sense that its government has effective control of its territory, but in the sense that other countries, including China, implicitly recognise its de facto independence in a host of ways.

The stereotypical explanation for this odd Chinese behaviour is that, being Asian, they are obsessively concerned about the perils of “losing face” – they are preoccupied with appearance to the exclusion of substance.

Maybe there’s some basis for that, but we should at least be cautious about such cultural stereotyping. A more rational explanation for President Hu’s policy would be that he is concerned not so much about the status of Taiwan for its own sake, but about the very practical question of democratic reform in mainland China itself.

As long as he can keep western eyes averted from Taiwan, he is keeping them from seeing that democracy in a Chinese society can be a striking success; that neither economic development nor any nonsense about “Confucian values” requires authoritarianism; and therefore that there is no reason why the mainland should not be held to the same standards that prevail in the developed world that it’s trying to join.

That’s my theory, anyway. Has anyone got a better idea?