Today, without too much fuss, regular direct flights between mainland China and Taiwan began, fulfilling a campaign pledge of Ma Yingjiu. The flights run Friday-to-Monday between Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xiamen, Guangzhou and Taipei. As you can see from the maps (from Sina & Chinanews) below, all flights still route near Hong Kong airspace so they are “direct” only in the sense of not having to actually stop in Hong Kong or somewhere else. Still it’s the start of something new — the “direct” flights put major mainland cities within a one- to two-hour radius of Taiwan, make it possible for day trips back and forth, for business or leisure. This is a popular move. Why has it taken so long and why is this significant?
Despite their close economic and cultural links, Taiwan and mainland China did not have the so-called Three Links since the Civil War divided the country more than half a century ago. The two sides started opening to each other during the 80’s and throughout the 90’s. But during the late 90’s, with the growth of Taiwan independence politics, further cooperation on travel, tourism, and financial exchanges stalled. A bizarre situation developed in which the people of Taiwan could travel, study, and invest in the mainland with basically no restriction from the mainland, but mainland Chinese were kept at length from Taiwan, and certainly could not travel there except under special and specific sponsorship.
During Chen Shuibian‘s eight years in office, the question of direct flights was mired in political disputes within Taiwan about whether they could accept flights not explicitly labeled “international”. At first, the DPP played to its base and stonewalled on the ominous sounding but ultimately silly notion that the PRC would send paratroopers disguised as passengers, despite that “indirect” flights were flown between Taiwan and PRC-controlled Hong Kong and Macau all the time. (Also compare to today’s statement: Taiwan says they have “kept fully abreast of the movements of the Chinese military … in the face of closer exchanges across the Taiwan Strait”.) But in 2003, 2005, and later, amid general easing of independence politics, “direct” charter flights were tried on an increasing number of special holiday occasions, finally culminating in today’s announcement.
With the direct flights and the recent lifting of restrictions on RMB currency exchange in Taiwan and (a limited number of) tourists straight from the mainland, more ordinary Taiwanese will come into contact with ordinary mainland Chinese, which means hopefully we will see less of this with time:
Restaurant in Gaoxiong, southern Taiwan. The signs read “Attention President Jiang: Communist bandits have landed!” and “Refuse to serve Chinese” as well as some anti-KMT messages. (from Apple Daily)
In this view, one sign carries a Chen Shuibian quote: “Taiwan-China, one country on each side” and another: “Refuse to serve Communist bandits”. (from Apple Daily)
Edit: In fact, mainland tourists were welcomed with great fanfare at the two Taipei airports serving the links. I included these photos not because they are representative, but because they are uniquely “Taiwanese” scenes. In Taiwan’s raucous society, mainlanders may also run into local election ads, FLG and Tibetan protestors (according to Reuters), and …
…members of Taiwan’s China Patriotic One-Heart Union dressed up as PRC police. The signs read “Celebrate Chinese nation’s cross-strait direct flights” and “Welcome mainland compatriots”. (from Reuters)