Fujian team opens doors with fruitful mission to Taiwan
On a sunny morning earlier this month in Kaohsiung, the governor of Fujian province, Huang Xiaojing, munched on a Taiwanese banana and celebrated the inauguration of a direct ferry route between Xiamen and Taiwan's largest port.
Huang and his 3,000-strong delegation were on the last leg of a six-day tour of Taiwan and due to head home after a peaceful and fruitful cross-strait visit.
Heading in the opposite direction was the cruise liner Cosco Star, making a debut crossing from Xiamen to Kaohsiung with 300 passengers on board.
The visit was peaceful because it passed without incident despite that the itinerary included Tainan - a city known for its pro-independence advocates and which made headlines in 2008 when a visiting Beijing envoy was pushed to the ground by city councillor Wang Tingyu and other opposition supporters at a temple.
It was fruitful because the trade delegation signed deals worth NT$24 billion (HK$5.79 billion) that went well beyond the traditional purchases of bananas from Kaohsiung.
'It was a good trip,' said Kevin Wu, a delegate and a Taiwanese who runs a 1,000-worker factory producing sportswear in Fujian's Jinjiang, known as the mainland's shoe capital. 'It will help people on both sides of the strait to know more about each other and eliminate some misunderstanding.'
Like many Taiwanese, Wu has ancestral roots in Fujian, speaks the local Minnan dialect and regards himself as a Fujianese. But he does not think reunification is next on the agenda.
'Economic co-operation could be the first, baby step in the unification debate, which is still a very sensitive subject in Taiwan,' Wu said.
Meanwhile, economic ties are being strengthened. A year ago, the Straits West Coast Economic Development Zone blueprint set out plans to develop the Haixi region, embracing the coastal cities of Fujian, by stepping up infrastructure projects, raising incomes and establishing a footing for direct links with Taiwan.
More recent policies centre on financial co-operation, which facilitates the inflow of Taiwanese capital into the region and includes yuan settlement of cross-strait trade; a cross-strait exchange for transacting shares of privately owned companies; opening up fund-raising channels for smaller and growth enterprises; and lowering entry barriers for Taiwanese banks to set up branches in Fujian.
Also in the blueprint are plans to accelerate the development of an agricultural zone in Fujian for Taiwan farmers, to promote Fujian tourist visits to Taiwan, and to increase transport links across the strait.
And ties between the two will be further cemented when Taiwan signs the economic co-operation framework agreement with the mainland next month, says Chiang Pin-kung, the chairman of the Taipei-based Straits Exchange Foundation.
But critics of the controversial agreement in Taiwan, mainly pro-independence groups and opposition Democratic Progressive Party members, are concerned that the pact is a cross-strait unification in disguise and fear it will hurt manufacturing jobs and salaries on the island.
Moody's Analytics economist Tine Olsen said the steady removal of cross-strait travel restrictions had resulted in an explosion of mainland visitors to Taiwan. 'This is bound to support retail trade and travel services in Taiwan,' she said.
Fujian's bilateral trade with Taiwan soared 97.9 per cent to US$3.34 billion in the first four months of this year, with exports to the island up 1.8 times and imports from Taiwan up 2.4 times, according to the provincial government.
Fujian, partly through spurring bilateral trade, aims to grow its economy 10.5 per cent this year after it jumped 12 per cent last year, exceeding the nation's 8.7 per cent growth.
Wei Zaisheng, a native of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian, said a more intimate cross-strait trade relation would attract more capital from Taiwan.
'Most business opportunities are still on this side of the strait,' said Wei, the president of Fuzhou Wusheng Trading, which distributes imported wine and cosmetics.
As for investing in Taiwan, he was less certain. 'I have second thoughts about investing in the island whenever I watch TV footage of legislators fighting and hitting each other in parliament,' he said.
Timothy Shen Ka-yip, the chairman of Hong Kong-based private equity fund Camden Rich, also believes business potential is greater on the mainland.
On the eve of taking a direct flight from Fuzhou to Taipei, Shen, who manages a US$30 million fund, said he wanted to scout for deals on introducing Taiwanese fast food and beverage businesses to the mainland.
'The flight takes only an hour and 15 minutes, which saves time and money and bring a lot of business opportunities,' he said.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, is doing what it can to avoid being sidelined by the growing bilateral links between Taiwan and Fujian. Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, along with the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, led a 500-strong trade delegation to Fuzhou about three weeks ago.
Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing chief marketing officer Lawrence Fok Kwok-man was among the delegation, seeking to encourage more Fujian companies to list in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong shoe exporter Eddie Lam Kwok-tak was enthusiastic about growth prospects in Fuzhou. 'There is more growth potential here since the new train service was introduced,' he said.
The new high-speed train service cuts journey time between Beijing and Fuzhou to 16 hours from 34 hours on an ordinary train service.
The service will be extended to Shenzhen in 2012 and ultimately Hong Kong and the rail network will be complemented by a web of superhighways radiating from Fuzhou to other coastal cities.
Fujian has earmarked 561.5 billion yuan (HK$641.18 billion) for 14 railway and 25 superhighway projects this year.
Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau were the largest foreign investors in Fujian in the first four months of this year, with US$1.96 billion - up 87.4 per cent on the same period last year, according to the latest provincial government statistics.
Trade between Fujian and Taiwan climbed to US$3.34 billion in April
The increase in Fujian's bilateral trade with Taiwan in the first four months: 98%