China's decision last week to stop issuing permits for independent tourists to Taiwan applies new economic pressure to their already strained relations, and analysts see three underlying reasons behind Beijing's move.
Beijing’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism cited the “current mainland China-Taiwan relations” as cause to stop permitting indie travelers after about a decade. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory rather than a state, but Taiwan prefers at least today’s level autonomy over the Chinese goal of unification. That schism has caused the two sides to chafe for 70 years.
Here are three reasons China cut off travel permits:
Taiwan's president opposes China despite earlier pressure to get along
Suspending the travel permits lets China remind Taiwan of its economic clout, some analysts say.
The permit shutdown ends a process that generated on average more than 82,000 arrivals per month last year, which boosted the island’s service economy.
Since 2016, China has flown military aircraft near Taiwan and persuaded five Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. The Communist leadership hopes to pressure Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s government to bargain with China as her predecessor did — on the condition that acknowledges both sides are considered part of the same country.
Despite the military and diplomatic pressure, the government in Taipei openly opposes rule by China. Tsai in January condemned the “one country, two systems” idea that Chinese President Xi Jinping had proposed then as a way to rule Taiwan.
China is “more than furious” that Tsai openly backs anti-Beijing protesters who have taken to the streets in Hong Kong since June, said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.
China upped its warnings by calling off Taiwan-bound independent travel, said Liang Kuo-yuan, president of the Taipei research organization Polaris Research Institute.
“The headline news will create some psychological effects,” Liang said. “I believe their motivation should be that mainland China wants to say ‘as well as using military threats we can also hold you back economically.’”
Taiwan's president faces a tough reelection bid in 2020
China hopes the tourism suspension will remind Taiwanese that “there are riches to be had” if they reject Tsai’s reelection bid in January, King said.
Tsai is running against Han Kuo-yu, a mayor who supports opening talks with China to bolster economic and investment ties. His party, when in power from 2008 to 2016, accepted Beijing’s condition that each side see itself as part of China for negotiation purposes. The two governments inked 23 deals.
Tsai rejects the one-China condition, and China cut off talks after she took office.
China hopes the cut in travel permits will addle the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
Hotels near tourist hotspots will take the biggest hit from the loss of self-guided tourists, though many had expected business to taper due to the decline in political relations, said Peter Lin, chief executive officer of the Topology Travel Agency in Taipei. Losses from the travel suspension are estimated at about $1 billion per year.
“The Chinese do want to show that DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] is not doing good things and want to punish the DPP,” Sun said. “They want to squeeze the election, and tourism is a very convenient channel. The tourism industry in Taiwan will be hit pretty hard.”
Chinese tourists would get close to Taiwan's political heat
China’s official television network said on its Weibo social media website Wednesday that independent travel permits had been suspended because of increasing “risks” for travelers before the election.
Beijing frets about its tourists being drawn to Taiwan’s democratic institutions including its unfettered mass media, King said. Relations with China are shaping up as a core presidential campaign issue with daily media coverage.
“There’s the incidental bonus for Beijing of having fewer of its citizens exposed to the island’s vigorously open political culture,” King said. “This fact cannot be overlooked, especially given the protests in Hong Kong, uncensored coverage of which mainland visitors get to see on their Taiwan hotel television screens.”