With the high-profile visits by groups of Amway (China) employees boosting the number of Chinese tourists, the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has breathed a sigh of relief. But analysts said the sudden growth brought with it a risk, as Beijing could pull the plug on tourism if Ma failed to toe its line.
The first group of Amway sales representatives caused a media frenzy when it arrived at Keelung Port on March 16. The group was criticized by some as arrogant, while media came under fire for blowing the visit out of proportion.
A total of 12,000 Amway employees were scheduled to visit Taiwan in nine groups on cruises organized by the company between last month and next month. The groups represent the largest number of Chinese tourists since the opening of direct transportation across the Taiwan Strait.
The visits by Amway employees come on the heels of comments by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) earlier last month, when said he would like to visit Taiwan someday, even if he had to crawl because of old age.
Statistics indicate that the number of Chinese tourists has grown steadily since the beginning of the year. While the daily figure was 500 in January, it jumped to 800 in February and 1,500 last month. More than 140,000 Chinese tourists have visited since July. Of those, 80,000 came this year.
Since Wen’s remarks, the average daily tally of Chinese visitors has reached a record high of 2,303. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications projected the country would see 20,000 Chinese visitors per week by this month or next month.
George Liu (劉志聰), a researcher at the Center for Peace and Strategic Studies, expressed concern over the increase in Chinese tourists, saying it was a small gift from Beijing in angling for bigger political gains.
Liu said Beijing’s decision to allow more tourists to visit Taiwan would ease public displeasure with the Ma administration.
By boosting the numbers, Liu said, Beijing could smooth the way for a cross-strait economic pact.
Citing the example of Hong Kong, Liu said Beijing had used the same tactic after the handover of the former British colony in 1997.
In a bid to help Hong Kong’s economy, Beijing adopted a slew of deregulation initiatives, including allowing more Chinese to visit Hong Kong. Hong Kong also signed the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Beijing.
The CEPA was supposed to symbolize an era of beneficial economic integration.
“But what we see instead is higher unemployment, a greater industrial exodus to China, less foreign investment, lower pay, the decline of the service industry and deterioration of working conditions,” Liu said, “It is a clear-cut and real-life example.”
While Ma expressed concern over the Amway groups’ itineraries, which did not include southern cities, Liu said he suspected it was a political ploy by Beijing to boycott areas governed by the Democratic Progressive Party.
“China is not a free and open market. Many of its policies are made to push its political agenda,” he said. “Its sole purpose is to advance its goal of unification.”
Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), executive director of Academia Sinica’s Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies, said the sudden increase in Chinese tourists was clearly a political stratagem.
“If [Beijing] can raise the number today, it can reduce it tomorrow,” Hsiao said.