TAIPEI, Taiwan – As two dozen anxious Chinese travellers began their maiden voyage across the Taiwan Strait, their tour guide called an impromptu meeting in the airport departure lounge.
He warned them about littering, spitting, flooding hotel bathroom floors – and the local cuisine. “Our Taiwanese brothers do not like salt, oil and MSG the way we do,” the guide, Guo Xin, said with a sigh.
Then his voice grew serious, the way a coach might caution his team about the impending face-off with a deceptively courteous opponent. Do not talk about politics with the locals, he warned, say only positive things about Taiwan and China, and by all means avoid practitioners of Falun Gong, the spiritual group whose adherents roam freely on Taiwan but are regularly jailed on the mainland. “They will definitely try to talk to you,” he said. “When that happens, get away as fast as you can.”
And thus began the heavily chaperoned visit to Taiwan, the disputed island territory where Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army fled in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao’s Communist rebels. The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, as they are formally known, may have never formally concluded hostilities, but relations have been warming rapidly since Taiwan’s 2008 election of President Ma Ying-jeou, who promptly broadened economic ties and signed accords on direct postal, shipping and air links. More momentous for citizens on both sides of the strait was the agreement that opened the door to group tours from the mainland.
Initially capped at 300 visitors a day, the numbers quickly soared. Last year 1.6 million mainlanders arrived here, up nearly 70 percent from 2009. During their tightly managed, all inclusive eight-day visits, they still managed to pour $3 billion into Taiwan’s economy, an amount equal to 0.72 percent of the island’s gross domestic product, according to Alice Chyoug-Hwa Chen, a tourism bureau official in Taipei.
In June, another landmark agreement brought the first independent travellers to Taiwan, although restrictions – including limiting the option to the well-to-do from Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen – have kept their numbers to just over 1,400 since the end of June. (Taiwanese have been allowed to work, study and invest in China for two decades.)
Economics are a key factor in the growing rapprochement, but the decision to open the door to greater contacts has also been inspired by politics and some wishful thinking on both sides. Beijing hopes to encourage a long-awaited reunification of the island and the mainland; Taiwanese leaders think exposing more mainlanders to allures of democracy, free speech and some of Asia’s most scintillating television will erode popular support for any military operation to force unity – an option that Communist Party leaders have long held out should Taiwan embrace full, legal independence. For now, the island has de facto independence, but China claims it as a breakaway territory.
“By seeing that anyone here can criticize the government and by realizing that democracy does not bring chaos, there is a hope we can subtly influence mainlanders,” said Huo-Wang Lin, a philosophy professor at National Taiwan University and an occasional adviser to Ma.
Judging from four days of travel with the group from Beijing, it is not entirely clear how many hearts and minds were vanquished. Granted this was a tough audience, many of them middle-age party stalwarts bolstered by a lifetime of propaganda painting the Nationalists as traitorous lackeys of the United States who ran off with Chinese treasures.
“It’s hard to compare anyplace to Beijing, the home of emperors,” Li Guihong, 69, a retired government employee, said smugly after taking in the Taiwanese capital’s urban landscape, much of it dating from the 1970s and ‘80s. “Our buildings are more modern and even their stinky tofu isn’t as good as ours.”
The derision runs both ways. Beyond local business owners pleased by the surge in tourist spending, many Taiwanese openly complain about the mainlanders’ seeming unfamiliarity with the notion of the indoor voice, a collective disdain for the single-file line and their insistence on asking complete strangers their incomes.
The other problem is a palpable wariness on the part of many mainlanders. Even when the travellers from Beijing had opportunities to chat with local residents – including the Taiwanese guide assigned to their bus – they often engaged in pleasantries and rarely asked questions. “You can’t blame them for being so closed and self-protected,” said the guide, David Wei, who entertained passengers on daily bus rides by stressing the commonalities between the two places: the clogged highways, the soaring real estate prices and the challenge of finding a perfectly marbled slab of pork.
Even if most mainlanders go home unconvinced about Taiwan’s culinary attributes, the place does seem to make its mark on some. Chan formed a compelling relationship with the television set in his hotel room. The gyrating, minimally attired ladies on it during the wee hours were mesmerizing, he said, but so too was the sight of politicians taking combative questions from reporters. “They can throw their leaders out if they aren’t doing their job,” he said with amazement. “Our leaders would never allow that.”
Perhaps the most challenging moments were the inevitable encounters with members of Falun Gong, who pepper the sightseeing circuit and hand out literature that details their persecution by the Communist Party. At a memorial to Sun Yat-sen, the patriarch revered by both mainlanders and Taiwanese, dozens of devotees stake out the main entrance all day.
Shih Wen-cheng, 46, a construction worker in a yellow vest bearing Falun Gong’s central tenets, “truthfulness, compassion and forbearance,” said most mainlanders recoiled when he approached. A few, however, look both ways and then stuff a pamphlet in their pockets. “Our goal is to make them realize the propaganda they’ve heard their whole lives is just that,” he said. “If we can convince one of them not to betray to the police a neighbour who practices Falun Gong, then we have achieved something.”
For many on the tour, the biggest surprise was learning that, contrary to what they had heard, most of the island’s 23 million residents are not exactly eager to merge with the mainland.
Just before boarding the plane at Beijing International Airport, Gao Guizhen 59, a retired piano factory worker, dutifully offered the prevailing sentiment about Taiwan and China. “We are one,” she said.
By Day 4, she seemed to have second thoughts. Sitting away from the others as they awaited a train ride along Taiwan’s scenic coastline, she offered a metaphor about two feuding brothers. The elder, she said, runs off with the riches, leaving the younger impoverished and embittered. Decades later, when the bereft brother grows rich and the anger fades, the grandchildren are allowed to spend time together. They discover that they have some differences, but also that they share many things – including an utter lack of interest in keeping up the feud.
Asked to reflect on how the story relates to the prospect of Taiwanese independence, Gao, who endured a decade of suffering during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, gave a throaty laugh.
“Independence or no independence?” she asked. “To be honest, who cares?”