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China Official Calls for Direct Links to Taiwan

China's top official on Taiwan renews a call for direct links with the island to be established as soon as possible. His comment comes as Taiwanese airlines prepare for their first cross-strait flights. The official China Daily says Thursday Vice-Prime Minister Qian Qichen is urging Taiwan policymakers to make it easier for Taiwanese residents to invest, travel and study in China.

The newspaper reports Mr. Qian attended a recent three-day conference on Taiwan affairs in Beijing and said the issue of direct links between the mainland and Taiwan is a "purely economic affair." He also said talks on the links should "leave out the political meaning of one China."

It quotes Mr. Qian, China's top official on Taiwan, as saying that "we should not let political differences hinder cross-Strait economic cooperation."

Beijing considers the island its territory, and has threatened to reclaim it by force if necessary. China contends that Taiwan's leaders must agree that the island is part of one China, ruled by Beijing.

The two sides have been at a stalemate since 1999 because of a what China considers Taiwanese politicians moves toward declaring independence. But they have inched toward an agreement to end Taiwan's ban on direct trade, communication and transport links with the mainland.

Mr. Qian's renewed appeal for direct links comes as Taiwan prepares for landmark chartered flights to the mainland. They will be the first flights since 1949, when Nationalists fled the mainland after their defeat by Communist troops.

Six Taiwan airlines have permission to fly to China to ferry Taiwanese business people home for the Lunar New Year in February.

Andy Rothman, an economist with CLSA Emerging Markets in Beijing, says the flights are a significant step toward establishing direct air links. "This is another important step in a process that began about a year, year and a half ago, when the government in Beijing really changed its approach to Taiwan and became much more pragmatic and flexible," says Mr. Rothman. "The foundation of that approach is trying to put aside the most difficult political issues and deal instead with commercial, economic, cultural issues."

Still, ticket sales for the 16 round-trip flights have been sluggish, with many Taiwanese people complaining that sales started too late. The flights are scheduled from January 26 to February 10.