Reading the Tea Leaves in the Taiwan Strait

Photo Credit: 臺左維新
Why you need to know

Is the relationship coming to an end? Has Beijing embarked on a policy of disciplining Taiwan for making the ‘wrong’ choices? It’s simply too soon to tell.

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The million-dollar question that has been asked in recent months is whether Beijing would “punish” Taiwan for having made what it considers the “wrong” decision in the January 16 elections by electing Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party. Since then, there have been many hints suggesting that this might be the case, and media, always on the lookout for drama, have feasted on those. But is Beijing truly embarking on a course of action that could only succeed in alienating the Taiwanese?

Two areas that seem to have been selected by Beijing to discipline Taiwan are tourism and education.

In the first instance, various reports have interpreted a drop in tourist arrivals from China following the elections as evidence that new restrictions have been implemented by China to hurt Taiwan’s economy. Last year, more than 4.1 million Chinese visited Taiwan, generating an estimated US$9.7 billion in tourism revenue. According to the Chinese-language United Evening News, the first phase of Beijing’s new policy, which reportedly came into force on March 20, the monthly quota of 150,000 visits to Taiwan was cut by one-third, or 50,000. Citing unnamed “tourism insiders,” the paper said that this is to be cut by another 25,000 in July and 25,000 in October. By then, the total number of approved Chinese tourists to Taiwan would be about 2 million, or half the total for 2014.

It could very well be that after eight years of rapprochement that did not yield the expected outcome, Beijing has given up on winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese and is now changing course by closing the door on dialogue and people-to-people exchanges. But it’s too soon to tell, and so far there is no irrefutable evidence to demonstrate that this is the case.

We are in the early stages of a new cross-strait relationship and should therefore interpret signals with caution. Among other things, we should ask ourselves whether other, non political factors, may also be dragging down, say, tourism numbers.

One variable that has not received the attention it should is the state of the economy in China. As elsewhere, a slowing economy (and there is plenty of evidence that this is happening) will inevitably have an impact on people’s desire to travel abroad, a form of luxury that is largely limited to the relatively wealthy. If people feel poorer — or expect that they will have less money to spend a few years’ hence — they will likely try to save their money.

Another factor has to do with novelty: many Chinese who were curious about Taiwan have visited it amid the liberalization of cross-strait tourism since 2008. Having visited, it is likely that the destination for their next trip will be somewhere more “exotic” — Thailand, Japan and Europe, for example. There is supporting evidence for this, with Hong Kong and Macau also experiencing drops in Chinese arrivals starting in 2015.

Writing in Forbes, Wolfgang Georg Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, observes that while “the travel bug is biting the affluent Chinese, not any less than before,” the difference is “the urge to go beyond the Confucian world and to experience new worlds, cultures and contacts.” According to Georg Arlt, the big winners have been Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, as well as a number of destinations in Europe, among them Hungary, Slovakia, Montenegro and Serbia, Finland, Norway, as well as Germany, Switzerland and France.

If politics are indeed involved in the decision to, say, cut the number of tourists who are permitted to visit or study in Taiwan, we should try to determine whether this is a national policy or rather a decision by perhaps overzealous local officials seeking to ingratiate themselves with the central government by demonstrating their commitment to defending “one China” against the DPP’s supposed “separatism.” We must also ask ourselves who is the principal audience when Chinese officials, academics or media comment about Taiwan in a way that indicates a hardening stance: in many cases, the rhetoric is probably for domestic consumption to reaffirm the Chinese Communist Party’s unwavering commitment to defending China’s national interest — in other words, the message should not always be construed as reflecting policy decisions, which in many instances will likely be much more pragmatic. Lastly, when a media organization does not cite its source(s) or relies on anonymous ones to indicate a shift in cross-strait relations, we should always bear in mind that the media outlet (or the source) may have an agenda for broadcasting that information. If it is impossible to trace the information back to an identifiable source, we should always regard the information with suspicion.

The notion that the central government in Beijing is orchestrating a punishing campaign against Taiwan is moreover countered by other developments that point to signs of continuity rather than a sudden willful breakdown in relations.

The eighth Straits Forum, which opened in Fujian Province on Sunday, is one such example.

“Relations across the Taiwan Strait are at complicated juncture,” the state-run Xinhua reports, “but the annual forum continues as normal.” Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲), chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, told the forum that China is “happy that so many young people from Taiwan want to study, work and start businesses or families on the mainland.” China “looks forward to better cooperation in science and technology, as well as more academic exchanges,” said Yu, a not insignificant voice in Beijing.

Rather than a national policy dictated by the central government aimed at punishing or pressuring Taiwan, the fluctuations that have been observed at various levels of interactions between the two sides in the past year can also be attributed to factors that have little, if anything, to do with politics. It is also important to point out that many of those trends emerged well before Ms. Tsai was elected president and are instead a natural extension of greater assertiveness on China's part.

If the only lens we use to observe cross-strait relations is that of politics — and that’s one thing media often do — then of course everything will appear political. In reality, however, the behavior of people in Taiwan and China is, as elsewhere, also influenced by other, much more mundane, factors. 

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Second Editor:J. Michael Cole
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