Mainland Tourism to Taiwan to Leap

As of July 1, the number of unaccompanied Chinese mainland tourists allowed to visit Taiwanis expected to leap -- a bit -- to 500 per day as a result of relaxed tourism rules, an event that the country’s government looks forward to with both eagerness and anxiety.

People’s Republic vacationers now are only allowed as a part of tightly supervised groups for up to 15 days. Some 4,000 tour group members are now allowed in.It appears a cautious-enougt opening, Tour guides confiscate passports to keep the mainlanders from straying into the crowds and disappearing or perhaps seeking espionage targets. Even so despite the drawbacks, 1.2 million mainlanders arrived in 2010, spending US$2 billion in the island’s shops and spas.

But the economics are encouraging and the number of unaccmpanied visitors is expected to grow. The government of President Ma Ying-jeou is well aware that 23.7 million mainlanders visited Hong Kong in 2010 under a similar individual visitor scheme – 63 percent of all tourist arrivals to the territory – and spending HK$12,000 each on average, driving Hong Kong’s luxury retail industry and providing a healthy boost to the economy, whose financial sector was hit hard by the global financial crisis.

With the opening to freer mainland travel, dubbed facilitated individual travel (FIT), a wide variety of economic figures are expected to go seriously positive. The timing comes in particularly handy for Ma’s reelection hopes for early 2012:

· In 2011, at least 2 million mainland visitors are expected to Taiwan, a number that is expected to grow exponentially from the current modest level.

· Taiwan is expected to soon overtake Japan as the most popular destination after Hong Kong and Macau.

· Forecasters expect the island's private consumption to grow at its strongest pace in seven years at 3.94 percent in 2011, driven partly by tourism sales.

· The advent of individual tourism is cited as a major reason the benchmark TAIEX, which is hovering around 9,000, could climb to 9,500 or 9,600 in the second half of this year.

· In apparent anticipation of the arrival of the mainland FITs, the amount of land bought by foreign investors increased five-fold from last year.

Taiwanese with stakes in the tourism and retail sectors expect the sales of luxury goods outlets by such as Louis Vuitton, Coco Channel, etc.,to rise sharply. As a telling phenomenon by those wanting to cash in on the facilitated individual travel (FIT) scheme craze, the Internet domain suffix “.tw” is being abandoned because their websites can’t easily be accessed in China.

Thus, although cross-strait political integration remains well off in the distance, Taiwan is increasingly being drawn into the mainland’s economic ambit, much as Hong Kong and Macau already have done.

The enthusiasm is not shared by everybody. Taiwan's National Security Bureau (NSB) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suspect that among the tens of thousands of PRC citizens who arrive after the opening, at least a handful will be spies seeking to scope out the defenses of a government that since 1949 has been engaged in its own Cold War with the mainland.

Fueled by these suspicions, the National Intelligence Services Act has recently been amended, enabling the NSB to brief hundreds of personnel belonging to the Ministry of Justice's Investigation Bureau (MJIB), the National Police Administration (NPA) and the National Immigration Agency (NIA). The lesson plan's main items: how to recognize a Chinese spy, how togather evidence, and how to bring him or her to bay.

While it is tempting to imagine mainland spies disguised as tourists clandestinely reciting numbers into short- wave radio transmitters from their hotel rooms, conveying information on Taiwanese defense facilities to the People's Liberation Army, opinions are divided over whether, and indeed to what extent, they could do Taiwan noteworthy harm.

“When they catch a tourist spying, it's normally a tourist who fancies themselves as a spy,” Wendell Minnick, Asia Bureau Chief with Defense News, told Asia Sentinel.

“They are living the fictive dream of cloak and dagger. They are not spies sent by the Chinese government. I call this stuff 'amateur hour' because that's about how long they last before getting picked up and shipped home.”

Chinese spies are already coming to Taiwanas disguised asv businessmen on multiple-entry visas, and while functioning as case officers, they handle long-term recruitment and servicing of recruited agents, Minnick said.

That doesn’t mean the would-be spies are necessarily harmless.

“There are concerns that as the number of tourists and other visitors increases over the next few months and years China will begin sending spies under tourist cover to Taiwan on acclimation visits to get familiar with the environment,” he said. “Then later, they send them over on regular assignments on business visas or fake third country passports from places like Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore.They are probably already sending a lot over using this method now.”

Ma Zhongfei, chairman of a high-tech company in China, was one such tourist. In May 2009, Ma strolled away from his tour group at the Taipei 101 tower and ended up at an Armed Forces recruitment center about 2 km away.There, he took photos, was arrested, questioned and transferred to the Taiwan High Court Prosecutors’ Office. A day later, the Taiwanese let him go without charges.

More than a year afterward, the Taipei Times ran a story saying the building Ma was caught taking photos of also houses a computer warfare command area as well as the government's Information and Communication Security Technology (ICST) center, which plays a crucial role in coordinating information security for all government agencies. According to the newspaper’s sources, the center was so secret that the prosecutors' office didn't know about it and thus let Ma go.

Neither do the droves of Chinese tourists filming and taking photos of Chiashan air force base in the eastern scenic city of Hualien have to fear being bothered by the Taiwanese authorities. The exact numbers of the Mirage 2000-5s, F-16s and attack helicopters that are towed in and out of the base's shelter, which is a hollowed-out mountain, are still classified.

As Minnick suggests, taking into account the regulations for business visas for Chinese, it makes little sense that the opening to FITs will bring about a wave of spies. In mid-2010, restrictions were so considerably eased by the KMT government that it indeed seems as if China'sintelligence services have all along had a free hand when placing its men and women here.

Apart from fulfilling some additional minor requirements, all Chinese companies' Taiwan branches have to do to invite hundreds of mainlanders to travel to Taiwan for business purposes is proving that they annually make the equivalent US$300,000, while managers and technical personnel may also come for training.

Tsai Chia-hung, professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University,says the DPP's warnings about the Chinese influx are legitimate, spies or not.Tsai pointed out that Taiwan's law enforcement record has never been very impressive to begin with, especially in dealing with illegal immigrants.

Illegal migrants from the mainland are not a serious problem– there are far more from the Philippines,Thailand, Vietnam and other countries. According to the island’s National Immigration Agency websit ein May 219, “a considerable number of illegal immigrants from the Chinese mainland have entered Taiwan since the lifting of martial law in 1987. The influx peaked between 1990 and1994, during which time about 5,000 came illegally to Taiwan each year.”

The numbers have dropped to about 1,000 a year, the agency said, of roughly 17,000 illegal immigrants caught in 2009 and 2010. Although that’s only the number that are caught, it is an indication that mainland immigration is not especially a concern.

Nonetheless, Tsai said, “If Taiwan can’t block more illegal immigrants, probably there will be more and more small 'Chinatowns'.Even though they may not threaten national security [directly], people's mentality against Chinaas an enemy will become fragile.”