As two dozen anxious Chinese travelers 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 in Taiwan but are regularly jailed in China.
“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, where Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his army fled in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) troops. 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 thawing rapidly since the election in 2008 of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who promptly broadened economic ties and signed accords on direct postal, shipping and air links. More momentous for people on both sides of the Strait was the agreement that opened the door to group tours from China.
Initially capped at 300 visitors a day, the numbers quickly soared. Last year 1.6 million Chinese visited Taiwan, up nearly 70 percent from 2009. During their tightly managed, all inclusive eight-day visits, they still managed to pour US$3 billion into Taiwan’s economy, an amount equal to 0.72 percent of Taiwan’s GDP, according to Alice Chen, a Tourism Bureau official in Taipei.
In June, another landmark agreement brought the first independent travelers to Taiwan, although restrictions — including limiting the option to the well-to-do from Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen — have kept their numbers to just more than 1,400 since the end of June.
Economics is 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 unification of Taiwan and China; Taiwanese leaders think exposing more Chinese to the 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 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have long held out should Taiwan embrace full, legal independence.
“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 Lin Huo-wang (林火旺), 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-aged party stalwarts bolstered by a lifetime of propaganda painting members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as traitorous lackeys of the US who ran off with Chinese treasures.