Much has been said of the potential for Taiwan’s democracy to have an impact on China as exchanges between the two countries increase. The experience that Chinese visitors take home from Taiwan after observing its open society and freedoms has been touted as part of the nation’s soft power. With the recent boost in cross-strait tourism, the potential for a gradual transfer of values is increasing.
Peaceful protests like those organized by Falun Gong practitioners at sites frequented by Chinese tourists have a role to play if Taiwan hopes to demonstrate the benefits of living in a stable democracy. Falun Gong followers seeking to draw attention to the brutal oppression of their spiritual movement in China have increased their presence at popular tourist spots since the launch of weekly cross-strait charter flights last summer, drawing complaints from some and praise from others.
Authorities in some areas are challenged with how to avoid offending Chinese tourists and losing their business without infringing on Falun Gong practitioners’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
The Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration used regulations on advertisements to keep Falun Gong practitioners from hanging up banners aimed at catching the attention of cross-strait tourists and educating them about religious repression in China, although Falun Gong followers continue to protest there.
In Tainan, city officials came under fire last June for allegedly seeking to clear away Falun Gong practitioners from a site that was to be visited by Chinese tourism officials. The debate flared again after the Tourism Bureau said it wanted to avoid meetings between Chinese tourists and protesting Falun Gong followers — regardless of whether their activities were peaceful and legal.
While some complaints from visitors may be valid — including the argument that images displayed by the Falun Gong are too graphic for children — these concerns can be conveyed to protesters without seeking to end their efforts to communicate with cross-strait tourists.
Opening the eyes of people who have been force-fed propaganda from an early age is no simple task, as the Taiwanese themselves can attest to. But while Taiwan has transformed over the past decades, the Chinese public is still taught by an authoritarian government that patriotism and good citizenship entail keeping quiet in the face of government abuses. Beijing continues to crack down on demonstrations, regardless of whether they are peaceful and based on valid complaints.
Even those who turn to the country’s petition system to seek redress for wrongs by government authorities are seen as a threat and portrayed as troublemakers or mentally ill.
While in Taiwan, Chinese visitors will hopefully witness that peaceful activities labeled “dangerous” by their government can exist in a stable society. The goal is to implant the seeds of free thought in visitors who, upon returning home, may wonder why they are denied the same right to criticize their government.
Tourism authorities in Taiwan, meanwhile, must remember that Falun Gong practitioners have the right to protest oppression in China, while Chinese tourists do not have a right to be shielded from opinions they might find unpalatable.
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