Of mangoes and mistresses

Lin Bing-huang looked glumly down the street outside the Ocean Hotel he owns in downtown Hualien.

“From Monday to Friday I have few guests. We could fill the hotel with more mainlanders – but they steal the cups, towels and pillowcases and spit on the carpets. Do we really want them?”

A port city on the east coast of Taiwan, Hualien is capital of one of the island’s poorest counties. Most of its young people leave to work in the big cities and the local economy badly needs more spending. Is there no choice but the mainland?

Lin expressed an ambivalence common among Taiwan people toward their giant neighbor. They want their share of its booming market and consumer spending but feel deeply uneasy about its long-term intentions.

Chiang Kai-shek’s slogans about recovering the mainland and overthrowing the “Communist bandits’’ are long gone but the suspicion remains for many of a malevolent and aggressive dictatorship that attempts to keep its people shackled by ignorance and censorship. “We need the spending power of the mainland, to revive our weak economy,” said Lin. “But we feel uneasy. It is still the Communist Party and they have 800 missiles targeted at us.”

On November 6 the National Tourism Bureau (NTB) announced that it would fail to meet its target of attracting 3.75 million overseas visitors this year, a projected increase of 10 percent over 2005, and would achieve a growth of only four percent.

The main reason is restrictions by Beijing on mainland visitors, to whom it opened the door slightly in 2002. The government limits the number to 1,000 a day and last year cut their maximum stay from 10 to seven days. They can only come in organized groups and must keep to a pre-arranged itinerary, including hotels, tourist sites and restaurants.

The NTB estimates that, if the restrictions were lifted, Taiwan could attract two million mainland visitors in 2008, compared to just 54,174 in 2005 and 1.1 million visitors during the first nine months of 2006.

In Hong Kong, mainland visitors nearly doubled to 12.6 million in 2005 from 6.8 million in 2002 after China relaxed travel restrictions to the territory. Hong Kong estimates each mainland visitor last year spent an average of US$584 per trip, translating into a US$7.4 billion shot in the arm for the local economy.

Reuters reported last week that China and Taiwan are working to allow increased travel and that new rules, officially opening the Taiwan market, could be in place by the end of this year or early next year.

But the Taiwan government is uneasy about following Hong Kong’s example. It fears that mainlanders will stay on in Taiwan, as illegal workers, prostitutes or spies.

There is already a booming racket in bringing illegal workers and spouses into Taiwan. Also last week the Immigration Bureau announced that investigations between September 2003 and the end of October this year found 12.6 percent of the 133,305 mainlanders seeking to enter Taiwan as spouses were involved in fake marriages.

Now the government has set up 39 rooms at airports, ports and the islands of Kinmen and Matsu, off Fujian province, to conduct personal interviews with applicants. Some were repatriated after the first interview and others after a second interview after entering Taiwan.

Taiwan has an estimated 240,000 wives of mainland origin, many to men of middle age or older who could not find a partner at home or met a new one while they were working on the mainland. Churches and social welfare groups have set up clubs for these wives to help them adapt to their new life, which can include anti-mainlander prejudice and sometimes verbal and physical abuse.

Many such men also marry women from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. In some hospitals, as many as 20 per cent of births are from “foreign’’ wives, as the birthrate falls among well-educated and career-driven Taiwanese women.

An estimated one million Taiwanese live permanently in the mainland, a majority of them men. Most of their wives and children stay in Taiwan, where they have jobs and attend school, resulting in thousands of the men with mainland mistresses.

To address this issue, Beijing has allowed the opening of three Taiwan schools, in Shanghai, Suzhou and Dongguan, where students can follow the same curriculum as at home, lifting a major obstacle to family reunification.

But even that has not gone smoothly. On November 7 the principal of the Dongguan school announced that the city government had banned the use of some of its history textbooks unless they were changed to remove words like “the Republic of China,’’ “the Republican era’’ and references to the rebellion by Taiwanese against Nationalist rule in February 1947.

The ban provoked anger and disgust in Taiwan. “The purpose of our education is to teach the facts in a scientific way and give the students the ability to make their own judgment,” said Chen Kuo-dung, a history professor at the China Research Institute in Taipei. “China cannot treat education with excessive nationalism and political ideology.”

Dongguan has nearly 100,000 long-term Taiwan residents, with only 1,500 attending the school – figures that indicate most still prefer to educate their children at home.

The smuggling of illegal workers from the mainland, to work in factories, do dirty and dangerous jobs or toil as maids and prostitutes, is another issue. The government encourages companies to import manual laborers legally from Southeast Asia, because it can control the movement of such labor more easily.

When police catch illegals from the mainland, they put them in holding centers ahead of repatriation. But this process takes months, largely because Beijing delays it, as one of its punishments for President Chen Shui-bian’s animosity towards the Chinese leadership.

Bilateral relations are so bad that there are no regular official meetings to discuss problems such as this.

The latest casualty of the poor relations are exports of Taiwan mangoes, guavas and other tropical fruits to the mainland, which sell for up to seven times the price of local produce because of their better taste and ‘exotic’ quality.

Now some mainland traders are labeling their local fruit “made in Taiwan,” which has soured the market because the quality of their goods is inferior.

“This damages the reputation of our produce and harms our market,” said Yan Kuo-hsian, head of marketing for the Yuching Farmers Association in Tainan, which grows some of the island’s best mangoes. “Chinese consumers taste the stuff and wonder why it is so bad.”

But the lack of official channels means that no corrective action will be taken in the short term. “There is no way to solve this,” said Yan.