Crossing the Strait with Inflatable Rings and Chillies: One man’s Quixotic attempt to visit Taiwan in the face of a new ban

Written by David O’Brien.

Image credit: Chinglish by Megan Eaves/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the odder cross-Strait news stories this month was the case of the Shandong man surnamed Chang who was spotted emerging from the sea onto a beach of Taiwan’s Lesser Kinmen Island with three child’s inflatable swimming rings, a big bag of chillies and 1,381 RMB.

Mr Chang told police that he wished to visit Taiwan but was unwilling to complete the complicated paperwork to secure a tourist visa and decided that swimming from Xiamen to Kinmen would be easier all round. The two-kilometre journey which he made at night took him almost seven hours. The bag of chillies was to keep him warm on the journey, he said.

Like millions of Mainlanders, Mr Chang was keen to visit Taiwan, but his journey was made more difficult by the PRC’s recent decision to ban its citizens from visiting as individual tourists.

The ban began on 1st August with no stated end date and was due to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s “consistent efforts to push Taiwanese independence activities and incite hostility to the mainland”, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office said.

The decision to ban solo travellers will likely have a significant impact on the tourist industry in Taiwan. According to Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency, 1.07 million individual travellers from the Chinese Mainland visited the island last year, up about 2% from 2017.

According to reports the ban could result in a loss to the Taiwanese economy in the region of NT$28 billion.

While the ban will not impact on tour groups, which is still how the majority of Chinese tourists choose to travel overseas, solo Chinese tourists are a fast-growing part of the tourist sector and are big spenders, so their loss will be keenly felt.

It has been widely speculated that the decision was made in order to hurt President Tsai Ing-wen ahead of next year’s election.

Taiwan began allowing solo travellers from the Chinese mainland to visit the island in 2011, three years after granting the same permission to tour groups. The moves came as a result of warming ties during the administration of president Ma Ying-jeou.

Apart from the obvious economic benefit, tourism also has highly significant cultural impacts, both positive and negative. While Taiwan has not witnessed the same level of hostility towards Mainland Chinese tourists that has been seen in Hong Kong in recent years, the meeting of peoples from different systems can and does cause tensions.

For example, demonstrators criticising the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners are common at sites in Taiwan popular with Mainland tourists. These protests have been known to provoke hostility from Mainlanders who take strong exception to their leaders being criticised, something they may not have encountered before.

Tour groups are of course easier to manage and control than individual travellers and this may be another factor in Beijing’s decision. PRC authorities will have been acutely aware of how Hong Kong protestors attempted to persuade visitors from the Mainland of their arguments during recent demonstrations, and how this at times escalated into conflict.

The PRC has always been nervous of its people visiting overseas, and it is only in recent years that it has been possible for ordinary citizens to travel abroad.

It is an industry that has exploded in recent years. The Chinese overtook Americans and Germans as the world’s top-spending tourists in 2013, according to the World Tourism Organisation. While Chinese spent US$128.6 billion on international travel, Americans spent US$104.7 billion and Germans US$91.4 billion.

Some of these tourists have made headlines due to their boorish behaviour prompting officials to publish guides on how to behave abroad and ban those who were deemed to have embarrassed the country from further travel. Even President Xi Jinping has weighed in, urging his countrymen to behave overseas. “Do not leave water bottles everywhere. Do not damage coral reefs. Eat less instant noodles and more local seafood,” Xi advised during an official visit to the Maldives in 2014.

The recent ban on solo travellers to China is also not the first time that Beijing has used tourism as an economic weapon. In 2017 Beijing banned Chinese tour groups from visiting South Korea, in retaliation against the planned Korean deployment of the US-built THAAD missile shield.

South Korea is one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists. The ban saw Chinese visits to South Korea drop 48 per cent last year to 4.2m, a major blow to the country’s tourism industry.

Beijing may wish to use tourism as a weapon against Taipei but as Mr Chang’s brave and eccentric journey shows, people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait are very keen to visit the other’s home. This month’s ban however may be a further sign of the Chinese government’s desire and varied attempts to isolate its people.

David O’Brien is a Research Associate at the Faculty of East Asia Studies, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. He is an ethnographer working on the area of ethnic identity in China with a specific interest in how PRC ethnic policies impact on people’s lives. He is co-author, along with Neil Collins of the recently published Politics of Everyday China. This article is part of the special issue on cross-Strait relations.

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