TAIPEI – The strongest impression Chinese college student Chen Jiawei received as he toured Taiwan for the first time last week was the relatively unblemished quality of certain scenic spots.
“The water in the coastal areas is so blue. It’s different from China’s,” said Chen, 21, from Guangdong province.
Chen was one of 762 tourists who arrived on July 4 via the first regular direct flights between mainland China and Taiwan since the two sides separated at the end of a civil war in 1949. Over the course of his 10-day trip, he said he found not just natural beauty, but a way of life he didn’t expect in Taiwan.
“Here, they don’t build a lot of man-made things in the natural environment. For instance, [they don’t] chop down trees, develop the land and construct a house for forestry workers, like we see in the mainland. In the mainland, they would plant the trees in the parks and then put the animals in them,” Chen said.
While Taiwan’s government is focusing on the economic benefits of regular flights from China and the 3,000 or so Chinese tourists they’ll bring each day, some analysts feel there may be potentially more significant consequences.
“The bigger impact is in cultural exchanges,” said Kou Chien-wen, a political scientist and cross-strait relations expert at Taipei’s Chengchi University.
Tours like Chen’s are the first time large numbers of ordinary Chinese have been able to visit Taiwan. It’s obviously an experience Chinese people could never get from textbooks and movies, not to mention the state-controlled media.
While the two sides are separated only by a 160-kilometer-wide Taiwan Strait, they have never signed a peace treaty since civil war ended in 1949 with the nationalists – today’s Kuomintang (KMT) party – fleeing to Taiwan after the communists took over the mainland. Up until July 4, direct flights were only allowed on several major holidays each year, and almost exclusively for Taiwanese business people and their families living in the mainland.
Only some 300,000 Chinese people have visited Taiwan annually, mostly on business trips. The travelers had to transit through a third location – usually Hong Kong or Macau – making the trips time consuming and costly. In the recent past, flying from Taipei to Beijing took an entire day.
Now, with 36 direct weekday flights between cities on the two sides, and flight times as short as 30 minutes, many more Chinese are clearly set to arrive.
And what are their impressions of Taiwan beyond Beijing’s control? While China has opened up in many ways, Taiwanese TV channels are still banned – even in places such as nearby Xiamen city in Fujian province. Some Taiwanese programs are allowed to be broadcast in hotels and upscale apartments in China, but it’s mostly fluff entertainment or soap operas – and all are screened by censors beforehand.
“Now there’s a new channel for Chinese to understand Taiwan,” Kou said. “Inevitably, Chinese tourists will compare life in Taiwan to that in China.”
Unlike Europe or Southeast Asia, where many middle-class urbanites like Chen have visited, Chinese tourists can communicate easily with locals in Taiwan. And as most people on both sides are ethnic Han Chinese, it may be difficult for some not to wonder why things are one way in Taiwan, and a much different way in China.
“Even though their cities are small and their streets are narrow, there are no traffic jams,” said Chen. “When our tour bus was passing through their cities, we could see their cities are very orderly.”
According to tour guide Chin Wen-yi, the new Chinese tourists were most interested in the differences in lifestyles. When garbage trucks passed the tour groups, some of the Chinese tourists asked why the trucks had so many different compartments, something not seen in the mainland.
“We explained to them it’s because in Taiwan we have a recycling policy and we require residents to sort their garbage, with a category even for kitchen food scraps,” Chin said.
At the same time, Taiwanese are getting a glimpse of China through the influx of mainland tourists.
“Actually, they dress in a quite modern way, no different from us. They look just like us, not at all like people from the countryside,” said Wang Ruo-mei, a Taipei native who does not know any mainlanders other than her late father, who immigrated to Taiwan after the war.
The fact that well-dressed, well-mannered and big-spending Chinese tourists could improve Taiwanese impressions of China is not lost on the Chinese government. Analysts believe Beijing is hoping that Taiwan’s increased economic reliance on China will make the island less likely to declare independence – an act which Beijing has threatened to respond to with war.
“China cannot control Taiwan’s media, so it can’t control Taiwanese people’s views of China. But when Chinese tourists come to Taiwan, at least China can show its good side,” said Chengchi University’s Kou.
In fact, to ensure a good first impression is made, the first wave of tourists was screened, said Darren Lin, a founding director of the Taipei Tour Guide Association and deputy manager of a travel agency handling the tours.
According to Lin, most of the tourists guided by his company were civil servants, repeat customers or family members and friends of the staff of Chinese travel agencies.
“This is partly because it was not easy to find so many people who were dependable in such a short time,” said Lin. “The first group is considered very important by the two sides of the strait. They were afraid of people running off and trying to stay in Taiwan.”
Retirees made up a large number of the 700 tourists, and each was required to have a certain amount of savings in their bank accounts, Lin and others said.
Don’t speak, don’t tell
Both tourists and tour guides adopted a “no asking, no telling” attitude on the subject of Taiwanese independence.
Sensitive places, including the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and the Presidential Palace were also avoided. Chiang was a former arch enemy of the communists, and China does not recognize Taiwan’s president because it considers the island one of its provinces, not a nation.
So far, the impressions the Chinese tourists have left on Taiwanese people have been positive. Despite some initial worries they would spit, or smoke in non-smoking areas, most exhibited good manners. All were advised of Taiwan’s rules as soon as they got off the plane.
Television stations showed smiling tourists praising Taiwan’s beloved beef noodle soup, as well as shopping, and carrying off luggage stuffed with newly purchased items.
Tourism industry officials expect that the number of Chinese tourists to reach 1 million annually, far greater than the current 300,000, and the tourists are expected to spend billions of US dollars in Taiwan each year.
The first group that left this past weekend spent US$1.3 million on souvenirs and luxury goods, according to the United Daily News. Taiwan’s government and tourism industry are hoping Chinese tourists will give the island’s lagging economy a much-needed lift.
“We hope those with money and time will keep coming,” said Lin.
Most of the 13,000 tour guides in Taiwan have previously led tours for Japanese visitors, but now 25%, Lin estimates, will focus on mainland tourists. “They will have to revise their tour explanations and focus less on the Japanese influence in Taiwan, because that might offend the mainlanders,” said Lin.
Still, not all Taiwanese were ready to roll out the welcome mat for mainland tourists.
A restaurant owner in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City hung a sign outside his eatery indicating Chinese tourists were not welcome. And one TV station showed a Tainan travel agent screaming that Chinese tourists will scare away the more refined Japanese tourists.
Some Taiwanese also objected to businesses changing their signs or writings such as menus from traditional Chinese characters, which are widely used in Taiwan, to simplified characters, which are used in China.
“I don’t think we should change our culture and identity just for money,” said Yang Wei-shiu, a Keelung resident.
But analysts said these are just initial hiccups. As both sides gain economic benefits, most people will come to support the closer contact, they said. And increased understanding could, over time, affect the two counties’ political relationship.
“Politically, it can enhance trust if the process continues,” said Andrew Yang, a cross-strait relations expert at the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.
To be sure, the Chinese tourists also noticed things they didn’t like about Taiwan.
Chen said news coverage of the disappearance of three Chinese tourists – who were not part of the groups from the direct flights – differed between media from Taiwan’s blue camp, which is generally more open to closer relations with China, and its green camp, which has pressed for Taiwan’s independence.
The pro-blue media emphasized the three were not tourists from the direct flights, while the pro-green media played down that distinction, Chen said.
“The media here are constantly fighting each other’s perspectives and their reports reflect their own standpoint,” said Chen, who admitted he and other tourists nonetheless loved reading local newspapers on their trip.
Although analysts believe it’s too soon to say whether increased contact will have an impact on political ties between the two sides, a new era of China-Taiwan relations has begun.
“At least they’ll compare why Taiwan is like this, and China like that. And some of the differences will be related to the different political systems,” said Kou.