Learning to fly

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2003, 12:00am

The historic chartered flights across the Taiwan Strait ended this week. Understandably, they were not as successful as their organisers had hoped. According to Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications, only 70 per cent of the tickets were sold.

But Taiwan, which was lukewarm about the idea from the beginning, may well have been inclined to highlight the negative - the 30 per cent of empty seats. While these flights were for the convenience of Taiwanese businesspeople on the mainland, it was officials in Beijing who gave their approval early, while Taiwan waited until very late. By then, many people had already made other arrangements for the Lunar New Year holidays.

The central government is clearly hoping these chartered flights will pave the way for direct flights between the two sides. On January 27, the day after the chartered flights began, the People's Daily published an editorial calling for cross-strait ties to be developed and promoting national reunification.

Two days later, another article predicted 'major progress' this year in establishing the 'three links' across the Taiwan Strait - direct trade, transport and postal services. It called on the administration of President Chen Shui-bian to acknowledge the 'one China' principle, after which, it said, 'peace on the Taiwan Strait can be guaranteed' and 'cross-strait ties can develop steadily'.

However, in Taiwan, there is little to suggest the Chen administration is so eager for the cross-strait links, and it certainly exhibits no interest in possible reunification.

In fact, the Taipei Times reported on Wednesday that Mr Chen had ruled out direct cross-strait flights, saying that, for national security reasons, civilian aircraft would not be allowed to fly directly across the Taiwan Strait even if air links with China were restored.

'There is a mistaken notion,' the president reportedly told a group of Taiwanese businessmen on Monday. 'Direct cross-strait transport links do not mean flying straight [to Taiwan].'

Tsai Ing-wen, head of the cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, said Mr Chen's remarks meant that any direct flights would have to be based on existing routes, even if the planes do not land. That is to say, flights from Shanghai would still have to loop south to Hong Kong, even if they were not required to land there before flying on to Taipei.

For how long can Mr Chen maintain his hardline stance? Like all politicians, sooner or later he will have to bow to the wishes of people whose votes he needs at the next election. And surveys show that what Taiwanese who do business on the mainland want most of all is direct links across the strait.

However, what is likely to make Mr Chen pause is the fact that surveys also show businesspeople are likely to increase their investments on the mainland after direct links are implemented, rather than increase investments in Taiwan.

Moreover, as a human-rights advocate, will he be able to argue against 'humanitarian direct flights'? An 11-year-old Taiwanese girl with a heart disease has been waiting a year for a heart donor. Both her brothers also had heart disease. One had a successful heart transplant, but the other died because of the lack of a suitable donor.

Because of Taiwan's relatively small population, the girl's chances of finding a suitable donor in time are small. But the mainland, with its much larger population, is more likely to supply one. A heart cannot survive more than four hours after being taken out of a body - certainly not a roundabout air journey of five hours or so.

If Mr Chen agrees to such a flight, he may well find himself on a slippery slope, since there are estimated to be 6,000 patients in Taiwan awaiting organ transplants. The vast majority have little hope of finding a donor in Taiwan.

The call of the mainland is heard not just by entrepreneurs, but also by many people looking for work. A recent survey showed that more than 50 per cent of Taiwanese employees were willing to relocate to the mainland. Moreover, increasing numbers of Taiwanese students are going to the mainland to study.

The next presidential elections are just over a year away. As they draw closer, Mr Chen may decide that approving direct links is his best chance to win re-election. Ironically, while the mainland wants direct links, it does not want Mr Chen's re-election. But it may find that it has no choice in the matter.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator




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