The National Immigration Agency (NIA) and the Tourism Bureau announced on the weekend that 9,500 employees of the Beijing-based Pro-Health Company and their family members would come to Taiwan on a sightseeing tour late this month, adding that the south would not be part of the itinerary.
This time, the claim that visits by or documentaries about individuals (such as Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer) who are loathed by Beijing was behind the decision to spurn the south cannot be sustained, even if no reason has been given for the decision.
What Beijing — and by extension the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration — is doing is fairly transparent, however: It is using Chinese tourists as an economic weapon to punish and sideline a segment of the country that is perceived as a bastion of Taiwanese independence and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) support.
In response, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) is said to have begun looking into alternative sources of tourists by focusing on Japanese and Europeans, among others.
Whether this new gambit by China and its tourism proxies succeed in hurting the south economically remains to be seen and will be contingent on Chen and others being able to mitigate the effects. What will happen, however, is a further political fragmenting of the country along a north-south axis. It is not hard to imagine that after tourism, Chinese institutional investment in Taiwan, which the Ma administration is now allowing in a growing number of sectors, could also be used as a means to isolate the south and widen the wealth gap between the two parts of the country.
If such a strategy were successful, the south could eventually face a disadvantage vis-a-vis other parts of Taiwan and the region. In such a scenario, residents there would face a choice between economic opportunity or discrimination, compelling them to compromise their political beliefs and support for independence. One result would be the possible sidelining of the DPP, as only votes for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or other pro-unification parties would be perceived to hold the promise of Chinese tourism and investment.
By quickly liberalizing trade with China, the Ma administration has made it possible for China to use the economy as a weapon to reward and punish. The “good” north is being rewarded, while the “bad” south is being forced into a corner to either rot or “reform.”
The political polarization of Taiwan along geographical lines would be an unhealthy development that would undermine the unity that is necessary to protect the nation against Chinese encroachment on its sovereignty.
National unity that transcends geography and political differences, as well as efforts to limit economic dependence on China, will be the best means to counter Beijing’s strategy of divide and conquer.
There will be costs in doing so, and China could “punish” tour operators or firms in the north that refuse to go along with its plan, but in the end, it would be far costlier to this nation if it allowed China to cleave Taiwan in two.