OPINION: China's Tourism Ban Shows Why Closer Economic Ties Won't Work

OPINION: China's Tourism Ban Shows Why Closer Economic Ties Won't Work
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

China banned individual travel to Taiwan since August 1 in an attempt to undermine the Taiwanese economy and influence the election, but Taiwan's tourism sector should be wary of the CCP's strategy.

As China banned individual tourists from traveling to Taiwan on August 1, the media once again rushed to cover the mounting tension” between China and Taiwan.

The policy, aimed towards hitting Taiwan’s tourism sector to hurt vote counts for the current Tsai administration, seeks to send one message: “submit to our claim over you, or else.”

China's weaponization of tourism is nothing new. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had used a similar tactic of tourism control in 2016 when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected.

In China’s latest defense white paper, the DPP was directly labeled as “Taiwan independence" separatists, despite President Tsai having just faced a challenging primary battle within the party against factions who attacked her as not being pro-independent enough.

Photo Credit: CNA
Chinese tourists arriving at Kinmen, a popular travel destination located just south of the Chinese coast.

The previous CCP policies to undermine Taiwan’s tourism sector had been particularly effective at directing popular outrage. Pro-Beijing media often stoked public anger against the Taiwanese government’s poor handling of the cross-strait tension, despite tourism control being a hostile policy aimed at putting Taiwanese people out of jobs.

Taiwan’s friendliness towards China in the past gave the CCP more leverage to rattle Taiwan’s economy. Between 2008 and 2016, policies under pro-Beijing KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) significantly increased the number of Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. With a dependent tourism sector mainly accommodating to Chinese tourists, the Taiwanese economy could easily suffer from China’s withdrawal of tourists via means like delaying visa approval times or banning them altogether.

This recent travel ban, though, only prohibits individuals from traveling rather than tour groups. Group travelers are usually high-spenders encapsulated in a regimented itinerary with little exposure to the actual lives in Taiwan. Individual travelers, on the contrary, can be susceptible to the influence of democracy in Taiwan while exploring on their own, especially during a time when election campaigns are in full swing.

CCP’s move to ban individual travel to Taiwan reveals its insecurity about its authoritarian governance structure. The regime likely fears letting its own people see what real democracy, real campaigning, and real election looks like. To further exasperate public fear in Taiwan, China Times, a paper closely affiliated to China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and the CCP, has reported that group travelers will also be limited soon.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Fengjia Night Market in Taichung

The Tsai administration, familiar with China's strategy of weaponizing tourism, introduced an NT$3.6 billion tourism stimulus package in response. The package subsidizes both domestic travelers and business owners, boosting local tourism in the coming fall and winter. Compensating local businesses has also been used as a policy to offset the withdrawal of Chinese purchases in the United States, where the Trump administration subsidized local farmers to offset the impact of the U.S.-China trade war.

Recycling the same tactics, the CCP’s travel ban is yet another attempt trying to coerce Taiwanese voters into voting for pro-Beijing candidates. Although Taiwan has benefited economically from the quick cash brought by closer relations with China, the CCP is free to leverage the same power to push Taiwan into a path of eventual annexation.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Tourist and locals shopping at Ximending, a popular tourism district in Taipei.

Taiwanese tourism business owners should be aware of how these manipulative campaigns work best when they, feeling the immediate effects of tourism control, speak out against the Taiwanese government and urge it to accommodate to CCP demands. Rhetorics like these, ironically made available through democracy and freedom of speech, can damage these values in the long term as they play into the CCP’s scheme to undermine Taiwan’s independence.

Instead, business owners should look outward for a more diverse tourist base to make up for the lost numbers. For one, a Japanese online media outlet has already pointed to the timeframe from now until the 2020 election as a good time for more Japanese to visit Taiwan, citing less-crowded hotels as one reason.

CCP has frequently used “people-to-people” contact to conduct “United Front” work. Unfortunately, economic ties have also been used as a powerful political weapon. Taiwan should find ways to break free from these ties, which will continue to threaten democratic values that allow for the current elections to stay free, fair, and capable of producing leaders who would not trade in democracy for Chinese sugar.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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