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Chinese Tourists - Good or Bad for Taiwan?

A few days ago I was walking from Taipei Main Station towards Gongguan, when I bumped into a big crowd at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Dozens of people were gathered around something which I at first couldn't see. I decided to stop for a while and take a closer look. 

I noticed that many people were taking pictures of two guards that were standing by a flagpole. Guards - I don't know if they are actual soldiers - are regularly stationed at the mausoleum of the former President of the Republic of China and perform daily ceremonies that have become major tourist attractions, as has the building itself, which is one of Taipei's most important landmarks. 

As I soon realised, a flag lowering ceremony was to be performed. The national anthem of the Republic of China was played. Then, the guards began the flag lowering ritual. While I was watching and taking pictures, I found that many, if not most people around me were mainland Chinese (I could tell from their accent). 

The number of mainland visitors in Taiwan has been growing steadily over the past few years, after the 2008 elected Guomindang government liberalised cross-strait tourism. Last year, 3 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan - a third of the total number of tourists. Between January and July of this year, 1.88 million mainlanders came to the island. While in the past tourists from the mainland were allowed to visit only as members of groups, at the end of June of this year individual travellers from selected Chinese cities have been permitted to visit Taiwan. The number of individual tourists has reached 625,000 in the first seven months of the year.

But is it a good thing for Taiwan?

Flag lowering ceremony at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

The anger felt in Hong Kong at mainland tourists' misbehaviour and the social as well as cultural consequences of large numbers of Chinese visitors seem to forebode ill for Taiwan. The recent Sunflower Student Movement, too, shows that a part of the Taiwanese population doesn't wish closer cross-strait ties.

What is the rationale behind Taiwan President Ma Yingjiu's policy of liberalising cross-strait tourism? And why is he going ahead despite fierce opposition?

Apart from economic gains in the tourist sector, President Ma has always argued that the Republic of China (ROC, aka Taiwan, or vice versa) should deploy both hard and soft power in dealing with mainland China. In a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Ma said that to defend Taiwan "military means is one of the means we are going to use, and it may not be the most important means. We also depend very much on the soft power of Taiwan to engage the Chinese mainland."

Ma Yingjiu seems to believe that the ROC is the "better China", and that he should give mainlanders the chance to see what this better China is all about, so that they can go back home and "infect" the Communist regime with their new insights. Ma said that the Chinese tourists who come to Taiwan are "very impressed by the society. It's really a free society. It's a society [where] individuals respect each other's rights and privacy, and the right to freedom of speech, and all that. And they also admire some of our democratic institutions, although sometimes they may feel that it's a little bit chaotic."

Ma is often misunderstood by his critics, as he is considered someone who is willing to betray Taiwan and sell it to Communist China. I do not profess to know well Ma's thinking, but judging from some of his statements I understand that to him Taiwan as a nation and the Republic of China as a state are two separate things. The Republic of China is the state that has jurisdiction over Taiwan, and as long as the status quo is maintained, the ROC and Taiwan are de facto synonyms, at least from the point of view of statehood. From the perspective of nationhood, I understand that Ma believes that Taiwan is part of the larger Chinese nation, and that the Republic of China is the superior Chinese state.

"I want to create a situation where the two sides could. . . see which system is better for the Chinese culture, for the Chinese people," he stated. This shows that he still has hopes that the ROC won't be swallowed by the PRC, but that it will reveal to the Chinese people the weaknesses of the Communist state. 

Can this strategy work?

The tactics of Ma's Guomindang might be dangerously naive. Over the last century, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has proven capable of outsmarting and outmaneuvering the Guomindang, as well as other democratic and non-democratic forces. Today, the PRC is building an ever stronger economy and state. 

If we compare the PRC and Singapore, it is safe to suggest that as long as the CCP can deliver good economic results, improve the people's livelihood and the overall life quality, and ensure that the state remains powerful and stable, a majority of the citizens will sacrifice a bit of personal freedom to the regime that has made all this possible. In Singapore, which is now one of the wealthiest societies in the world, the People's Action Party (PAP) has won every election since 1959 despite its restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and its harsh legislation. However, it is possible to assume that elections make the PAP more competitive than the CCP. But if the latter finds in itself the energy to improve itself steadily without electoral pressure and to deliver results, it is hard to imagine that the Chinese people will risk their lives and property in order to oust a successful government.

As I looked at the crowds of mainland Chinese tourists during the flag lowering ceremony, I was wondering what their thoughts were. They stood in front of the mausoleum of Mao Zedong's most bitter enemy; they saw the flag of a state that, according to their government, has been defeated in the Civil War and does no longer exist;  they had a first-hand experience of a Han-Chinese society that is free and pluralistic; they walked on the peaceful streets of a wealthy city, where liberty does not equal destruction and war; in Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall they read a version of history that is different from the one propagated by the CCP; they can even buy books at local bookstores which they wouldn't find back home.  

But were they at all interested in all this? Or were they just - like many other tourists - rather interested in food, taking pictures, having fun and taking a rest from their stressful lives? 

Be as it may, I believe that visiting a different society can be beneficial for mainland tourists, and that the one or the other might perhaps have different feelings about Taiwan and the ROC, question the ideological assumptions cultivated by the CCP, and return home less willing to see this island bombed and destroyed by the People's Liberation Army.


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