Cross-Strait hijackings may be a joke but travellers aren't laughing

IT used to be that passengers travelling on a domestic flight in China only had to worry about endless delays, rude staff and daredevil pilots. Today, however, travellers also run the increasing risk of being diverted to Taiwan.

With three hijackings in the last couple of weeks, the possibility of landing at Chiang Kai-shek International Airport rather than one's scheduled destination has become something of a standing joke among business travellers in China.

''Say hi to [Taiwanese President] Lee Teng-hui,'' the manager of a trading company was heard to tell his colleague before a flight from Beijing to Xiamen, site of the majority of hijackings this year.

But for many people, the alarming increase in air piracy this year has gone beyond a joke.

The Chinese Government and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in particular are certainly not amused.

CAAC has never enjoyed the best of reputations among international travellers and its standing has been further diminished by the appalling lack of airport security exposed by this latest round of hijackings.

There is a certain amount of sympathy among foreign airline representatives in Beijing for CAAC's predicament.

''Even with the best of equipment, it is very difficult to stop someone getting on board with a tube of toothpaste or a bottle of shampoo and then claiming it is filled with explosives,'' one airline executive said.

''Unlikely as it is that they are genuine explosives, you just cannot take the chance once the plane has been hijacked,'' he said.

In the latest round of negotiations on improving relations across the Taiwan Strait, Taipei expressed a willingness to repatriate air pirates in certain cases but not if a political motive was involved.

Given that just about anyone in China can claim to be persecuted, it should not prove too difficult for a hijacker to convince the anti-communist authorities in Taipei that they had a political motive for their actions.

The latest group of hijackers, for example, claimed they had taken part in the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

This is a fairly lame excuse, given that thousands of genuine protesters are now living perfectly normal and prosperous lives in Beijing, but one the Taiwanese authorities will probably buy nonetheless.

Taiwan's refusal to repatriate Chinese hijackers is rooted in a belief that anyone fleeing the brutal repressive communist regime across the Strait deserves a sympathetic hearing.

Unfortunately, many of those hijacking planes to Taiwan are just economic opportunists or common criminals fleeing the Chinese judicial system.

The time has come for Taipei to forget its blindly anti-communist ideology and realise that hijackers are just taking advantage of its lenient policy.

The repatriation of hijackers would no doubt act as a major disincentive to others thinking about pulling the same stunt.

The prospect of facing trial for air piracy in China is not a pleasant thought and potential hijackers would either have to be incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.

Of course genuine political asylum seekers should, after serving a long prison term, be allowed to reside in Taiwan, but Taipei should introduce rigorous screening measures to ensure that no one slips through the net.

Air piracy, in any country, is a very serious crime which can endanger the safety of hundreds of air passengers.

Governments have a responsibility to deal with the matter conscientiously and not play politics with people's lives.