The opening of a tourism office is rarely considered headline news. But that was not the case last Friday, when Beijing’s National Tourism Authority opened for business in Taipei.
Significantly it was the first time an agency from the Chinese mainland had opened in Taiwan since 1949.
It followed a move a few days earlier, in which the Taiwan Strait Tourism Association unveiled a new Beijing office of its own. The objective, says its civil servant boss, Yang Ruey-tzong “is to introduce Taiwan’s scenery and landscape to mainland people, and promote mutual understanding and interaction between the sides through tourism.”
Of course, this is about far more than tourism – which is not to belittle the fact that Taiwan received as many as a million Chinese tourists last year – a growing source of revenue helping to boost the Taiwanese economy.
However, the real symbolism of the office openings, says the Wall Street Journal, is that they are “the latest sign of improving ties between the historic rivals”. After all, it was only 14 years ago that the US had to send a pair of aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait to head off an aggressive dispute between the two. Relations then went into deep-freeze for much of the past decade, courtesy of Beijing’s distaste for former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian.
What has changed? The election of Ma Ying-jeou (pictured above) in May 2008 saw the two sides begin to ditch the rhetoric of the past and move forward with more pragmatic agreements – such as setting up direct transportation links. Ma’s party, the KMT, may have been the same body that fought with Mao’s Communists during the 1940s civil war, but memories of Chiang Kai-shek and his plans to recapture China had long passed.
What Ma espoused instead was a realpolitik recognition of how much China had changed, and how vital it had become for Taiwan to hitch itself to Chinese GDP growth.
That’s also the logic behind the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) he has been negotiating with Beijing. If all goes to plan it’s set to be signed next month and will lead to a further dismantling of trade and investment barriers. Ma’s supporters say the trade pact will boost the island’s economy – a government-sponsored survey forecast it could increase GDP by 1.72% and create 263,000 jobs.
Not everyone agrees with Ma’s sanguine estimates of the benefits. Some fear a ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy, in which Beijing first gains control of the Taiwanese economy, before turning its attention to wider sovereignty. This week the chairwoman of the main opposition party, the DPP, told Reuters she opposed the ECFA. If elected in 2012, Tsai Ing-wen said her party would call a referendum on scrapping it.
Indeed, the ECFA has been contentious enough in Taiwan for Ma to debate it with Tsai on TV. The outcome was inconclusive. After the debate, a poll published by the Liberty Times indicated greater support for Tsai and those opposing the ECFA; however, the China Times ran a web-based poll that found 66% supported Ma.
The mayor of Taipei, Hau Lung-bin, perhaps put it most succinctly when he arrived to open his city’s pavilion at the Shanghai Expo a fortnight ago: “The lack of economic exchange and cooperation across the Straits over the past decade has hindered the economic development of Taiwan. It is now time for us to get rid of mainland-phobia and facilitate exchanges by signing the trade pact.”
It would seem Hu Jintao could not agree more. In another move loaded with symbolism he personally welcomed a Taipei’s Expo delegation to Shanghai.
The Chinese president sought, in his usual style, to promote harmony. The Expo, he mused, was the pride of “all Chinese people”, and that included “those across the Taiwan Strait”.
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