dimecres, 23 de desembre del 2009

Chinese tourists pay respects to an old enemy

"The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan's capital city, doesn't look very different from monuments devoted to communist icons in mainland China. The Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both create propaganda scenarios that mix ideological fanfare, a lack of historical rigor and the colossal architecture commonly used to worship dictators.

Maybe because they find it familiar, hundreds of tourists from the mainland gather every day at the late generalissimo's memorial with no sign of displeasure at such a demonstration of totalitarian kitsch. On the contrary, they say they are delighted to discover that Taiwan praises Chiang, who was once the mainland Communist Party's fiercest enemy.

Chiang, a lifetime rival of Mao Zedong, had long been portrayed as devil No 1 in Communist Party propaganda. And it was not long ago that the KMT was still regarded as an enemy by the CPP. But as Taiwanese pro-independence movements gain weight, the two former rivals find more things in common, the most important being the long-term process of reunification as both maintain there is only one China and that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to that China.

In 2005, the CCP and the KMT started high-level talks. Since then, Beijing has noticeably modified its propaganda strategy, and the KMT is no longer a rival but a trusted ally in the fight against Taiwanese pro-independence forces.

Against such a backdrop, Chiang's role in history, as well as his legacy, is being re-evaluated on the mainland. His role in leading the nation against the Japanese invaders during World War II is affirmed (previously only the CCP had been said to be the main force against the Japanese). In particular, Chiang is praised for his "iron fist" crackdown on any pro-independence activity in Taiwan to "safeguard national integrity".

A recent example of this transition is the film Jianguo Daye ("The Founding of a Republic"), a movie sponsored by the Chinese government to commemorate the 60th birthday of the People's Republic of China. In the movie, Chiang is depicted as an honorable man who tried his best for China and betrayed the CCP because of human mistakes incited by bad advisers.

"Whether in China or Taiwan, everybody can make mistakes," said a Taiwanese guide for a group of retired workers from a steel company in Xian, capital of Shaanxi province in northwestern China. Some of them were wearing their blue factory uniforms. They had finished the tour of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and were heading to their bus when I asked them their opinions about the generalissimo. They looked reluctant to talk to this journalist, but they nodded when a woman answered that Chiang was a good influence because he fought for the unification of China.

A trendy batch of urbanites from Chongqing was at the same time taking pictures of soldiers marching past the feet of Chiang Kai-shek's giant sculpture, a show that was banned in 2007 during the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidency. Back then, the hall was renamed "Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall" and it was devoted to the struggle for democracy under KMT martial law (1949-87). The building recovered its original name last July with the approval of the KMT legislative majority. An editorial in the English-language newspaper Taipei Times said the reason for restoring the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall’s name was "to honor a symbol of one China" now that on the mainland Chiang's role "has gradually been rehabilitated" and mainland tourists "are eager to visit the mausoleum in Taiwan".

Ms Wu, one of the senior members of the Chongqing group, asserted that Chiang was "a good politician and a good fellow of Mao". Her mainland guide declined to talk about the issue and deferred to the local guide, who concluded, "Chinese people don't want to remember the disputes that divided us in the past."

It is historical irony that Chiang has become a symbolic link for the two sides across the Taiwan Strait. His memorial hall, as well as some other places in Taiwan where the late KMT leaders stayed, has become a major attraction for mainland tourists, whose arrival the KMT government under President Ma Ying-jeou hopes will help boost the Taiwanese economy, which is struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.

More than 760,000 people from mainland China visited Taiwan between January and October, nearly five times the number in the whole of 2008, according to the Taiwanese government. An increase in direct cross-strait flights has pushed forward this flood of tourists, and mainlanders are now the second-largest group visiting the island after the Japanese. Last spring, both sides of the Taiwan Strait approved that the weekly number of round-trip flights should be increased to 270 this year from 108.

The arrivals at Taoyuan International Airport demonstrate this trend: there are announcements flashing on the screens for flights from all over Japan, China and, in a lesser amount, the United States. Surrounded by hordes of mainland Chinese following the flags of their guides, the occasional Western traveler looks like an unexpected guest.

However, political and military hostility officially remains between mainland China and Taiwan, despite increasingly frequent economic and people-to-people exchanges. Taiwan imposes strict restrictions on mainland tourists and such tourism is inevitably vulnerable to any change in the political climate across the strait.

While the Taiwanese government is easing visa restrictions for Hong Kong residents, the requirements for mainland Chinese tourists remain tough. The Taiwan National Immigration Agency released in the first week of December a new set of rules governing mainland tourists. The China Post, an English-language newspaper in Taiwan, reported that they are not allowed "to engage in any activities that challenge national security, social stability and constitutional laws. They are not permitted to take part in any political activity such as electoral campaigns and political talk shows." The China Post also quoted the 20 activities allowed for mainland tourists: "participating in exhibitions, contests, opening and closing ceremonies, international auctions, new year flag-raising ceremonies, enterprise-sponsored award ceremonies, year-end dinner parties, company meetings, clansmen associations, temple fairs, concerts, sporting events such as swimming across Sun Moon Lake, wedding ceremonies, undergoing cosmetic surgeries, dinners with political officials, visiting companies, tomb sweeping, visiting relatives or friends, city tours and shopping".

The agreement between Beijing and Taipei on mainland tourists traveling to Taiwan also establishes several measures to avoid illegal migration and political conflicts. In Taoyuan Airport, mainland visitors are seen waiting for immigration clearance with the required documents in their hands: a passport with at least six months of validity, a special identification card required for Taiwan entry, and a certificate stating that they have a job or a full-time student position back home.

Tourism is only allowed for groups of five to 40 people, and a tour group must be organized by two authorized travel agencies - one on the mainland and its local partner. Some 146 mainland travel agencies were accredited at the beginning of 2009 to offer trips to Taiwan after passing the examination of the Cross-Strait Tourism Exchange Association. Taking mainland tourists to Taiwan has many risks and a potential financial burden that only big agencies can assume. Taiwanese law demands that a company arranging tours for mainlanders provide a deposit of NT$1 million (US$31,000). If a tourist overstays on the island after the expiration of his or her visa, the government will deduct from the deposit a fee of NT$200,000.

Travel agencies should also receive the approval of the authorities for the planned schedule and itinerary that the group will follow. Leisure trips for mainlanders are a very basic introduction to Taiwan. They include such places as the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, the National Palace Museum and the 510-meter Taipei 101, the world's tallest habitable skyscraper, as well as Sun Moon Lake and Mount Ali in central Taiwan.

Even though the law is clear about the control norms, the call center of the China International Travel Service (CITS) informs that it allows its customers "to leave the group for a while when they ask for permission in advance".

Most mainland tourists are moved by bus straight to their next destination, and it is uncommon to see them walking on the street by their own. This is probably too much control, even for people used to the CPP security paranoia. The China National Tourism Administration said in November that a delegation of state travel agencies went to Taiwan to study the possibility of arranging a new kind of "in-depth tour". The CNTA reports that the mainland tourism industry has shown concern about the development of the business because customers complain that the tours in Taiwan are too superficial. "The aim of this in-depth itinerary is to understand Taiwanese society. It is necessary to introduce more features [compared with] the way these [tours] have been formulated until now," said the CNTA.

Beijing also imposes restrictions on activities of its citizens visiting Taiwan. The CITS informs customers of its "Deluxe Taiwan Tour" - an eight-day trip that costs 6,600 yuan (US$970) - that they are forbidden to accept propaganda pamphlets from Falungong or talk with representatives "of this evil cult", which is banned on the mainland but not in Taiwan.

On the last Saturday of November, a congregation of Falungong followers was praying at the main entrance of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The museum was crowded with thousands of mainland tourists running a kind of "cultural marathon": their goal was to see every section of the world's most renowned museum of Chinese art in the time set by their tour leaders. The National Palace at present features the first exhibition jointly organized by the Taiwanese and mainland authorities, a show about the Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735) of the Manchu Qing Dynasty. The Falungong gathering was praying and handing out pamphlets about their faith and the repression they suffer on the mainland. "Falun Dafa is good" is the motto they were using to gain the attention of tourists from the mainland. Most of the tourists took a quick look at the scene but refused to accept the pamphlets, leaving the place in a matter of seconds.

There are cultural attractions in Taiwan that are unlikely to be added to the routes of travelers from the mainland. The memory of Taiwan under Japanese rule (1895-1945) doesn't incite a fiercely hostile reaction, as it does in the People's Republic of China. Therefore, it would be complicated for a travel agency to arrange a visit to Fort Santo Domingo, on the outskirts of Taipei, erected in the 17th century by the Spanish Empire and later rebuilt by the Dutch colonial powers. The fort, where the History Museum of Danshui is based, is presenting an exhibition about the infrastructure and public-service development achieved during the Japanese occupation. Visitors even have the opportunity to be photographed with actors disguised as former Japanese officers and geishas.

The Wall Street Journal revealed in 2008 that several towns on the west coast of Taiwan, expecting to receive tourists from the mainland, had removed their public anti-Communist emblems. This is a serious matter, because any negative publicity could block a region from being included on the list of places recommended to groups from the mainland.

For its part, Beijing seems aware that mainland tourists could be used to fight against pro-independence forces in Taiwan.

A spokeswoman of the Taiwan Affairs Office, a department of China's State Council, said in October that a sudden decline of mainland tourists to Kaohsiung city in southern Taiwan was because its DPP mayor, Chen Chu, invited the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, to attend a memorial service for the victims of Typhoon Morakot that the local government held in September. According to the Taiwanese media, Kaohsiung also offended mainlanders by allowing the screening at the Kaohsiung Film Festival of The 10 Conditions of Love, a documentary about the life of Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader who is considered a terrorist by Beijing.

Although both Beijing and Taipei may have taken every possible precaution to prevent unpleasant happenings involving mainland tourists, some unexpected things could still happen with such a big number of them arriving on the island. Would something go wrong if mainland travelers entered a military recruitment center in Taipei? And what if they are present at one of the military and patriotic addresses that Taiwanese high-school students periodically attend?

Even worse, how would Beijing react if a group of mainland tourists became involved in a fight during an election campaign in Taiwan? This could happen in a political system known for violent clashes between voters of the KMT and the pro-independence DPP."

Cristian Segura, Asia Times Online. Cross-strait tourists see double.