EDITORIAL: Neither gods nor cash cows

Tue, Mar 24, 2009 - Page 8

From the red-carpet treatment they have been receiving since they started arriving in Taiwan, one would think that the thousands of Amway China tourists visiting the country were god-like creatures sent from a faraway kingdom.

Greeted by crowds, special performances, the media and showered with gifts, the Chinese visitors are being turned into objects of near-veneration, as if they were — to quote an infamous official at one of the nation’s representative offices abroad — “superior” beings visiting an uncivilized land.

Meanwhile, other, larger tourist segments — such as the 1.08 million Japanese who topped the list of visitors last year — have not received any special treatment, despite historical ties and the far greater impact they have on the tourism sector.

Rather than treating them as special guests and giving them — with undertones of an inferiority complex — more importance than they should receive, Chinese visitors should be exposed to the openness and freely expressed diversity that starkly distinguishes Taiwan from China.

Chinese tourists should not be isolated in their tour buses, like nobles in a protective sedan chair zigzagging a Jurassic Park where dangers lurk, driven from one safe spot to another. Otherwise, Taiwan will simply be mimicking what the Chinese do whenever foreign officials visit their country: present an incomplete and sanitized — if not false — picture of the country.

In China’s case, poverty, environmental catastrophe and political dissent are hidden from view, giving visitors the impression that all is well.

In Taiwan, what is being sanitized for Chinese consumption, ironically, are the great accomplishments of the past two decades — the benefits of free speech, liberalism and democracy, where Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, sexual minorities, government critics and others live together, with little fear of persecution.

For their own benefit, Chinese visitors should not be prevented from coming in close contact with people and groups who need to express their anger at Chinese authorities by demonstrating.

Conversely, Taiwanese should stop treating Chinese visitors as if they were nothing more than cash cows, with reporters asking them again and again how much they plan on spending here. These are questions that would never be asked of visitors from other countries.

Not only is it impolite to do so, but when the people in question happen to be Chinese, it politicizes tourism and plays into the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s misleading contention that Chinese will save Taiwan’s economy.

So pointless is the question, in fact, that depending on one’s perspective, the same answer can lead to two interpretations: See how little they’re spending, opponents of Ma’s policies will say. See how much they’re spending, his supporters will counter. Regardless, in the end, however much they spend, Chinese visitors will not “save” Taiwan’s economy.

If cross-strait travel is to avoid becoming more than it should be, we must avoid politicizing it. This means treating Chinese visitors no differently — as neither gods nor cash cows — than we would others, and putting the same amount of energy into giving them the opportunity to explore what makes Taiwan special that we would for visitors from the US, Japan, South Korea and the EU.