Getting Hitched

At times last week, "One China" almost seemed like reality in the tiny mainland village of Meizhou on China's coast. Every day thousands of religious believers jammed into an incense-choked temple to bow before the Taoist deity Mazu, Goddess of the Sea. Mainland and Taiwanese fishermen alike revere Mazu, and pilgrims from both sides of the Taiwan Strait were mingling to celebrate her 1,040th birthday. In a nearby harbor, four white fishing boats from Taiwan--clearly flying their national flag--had defied a Taipei ban on direct travel by steaming straight across the narrow straits for the festival. Most of the thousands of Taiwanese visitors had come the long way from Taiwan: via Hong Kong. One pilgrim, who gave only his surname Li, dreamed of traveling directly to Meizhou, in Fujian province, after Chen Shui-bian is sworn in as Taiwan's president this week. "One day the sky will be filled with airplanes flying directly between Taiwan and the mainland," said Li amid a deafening barrage of firecrackers. "Taiwan is so close: why do we have to travel so far?"

The journey may soon get shorter. Beijing may take a hard line toward Taiwan, but at the grass roots, a quiet revolution is afoot. Along China's coast, just 136 miles across the water from Taiwan, trade and cultural exchanges are booming. True, as Taiwan moves farther from mainland China's authoritarian model, peaceful reunification seems increasingly remote. The political mudslinging dominates the headlines--and there are Beijing hard-liners who firmly believe reuniting with Taiwan is more important than doing business with it. Nonetheless, the growing ties--more than $40 billion in Taiwanese investment so far--could limit China's appetite for military conflict; already tourism, academic exchange and people-to-people contacts are flourishing, especially in Fujian province, which faces Taiwan. Beijing hopes this will help define an eventual roadmap for reunification. "Interdependence across the Taiwan Straits continues to develop [and] common cultural bonds are inseparable," said mainland negotiator Wang Daohan. The U.S. think tank Rand Corp. argues that growing economic links are "the major integrative force in Beijing-Taipei relations."

Taiwan's new president is committed to expanding those links. On the campaign trail, Chen was the candidate most likely to support trade with the mainland. In his May 20 inaugural speech Chen is expected to propose liberalizing Taipei's unpopular ban on direct shipping, aviation and postal connections, known as the "three links." Even the most innocent of people-to-people exchanges between the Taiwan Straits were barred after the Communist Army routed Kuomintang troops in 1949. As recently as the early 1980s, mainland goods were banned on Taiwan, and photographs of Chinese leaders published in imported Western publications had the ideogram for "bandit" stamped on them by zealous Taiwan censors. But when reformist leader Deng Xiaoping came to power two decades ago, Beijing began wooing Taiwanese investors. Taipei lifted its investment ban in the early 1990s, and cross-straits business boomed.

In 1996, the then President Lee Teng-hui saw a trap: worried that Taiwan would become economically dependent on China trade, he tried to slam on the brakes by limiting Taiwan investments above $5 million. Taiwan's business community, determined to take advantage of China's cheap labor--and its market--found ways to work around the new restrictions. Since 1996, investments have risen steadily, and two-way trade hit a record $26 billion in 1999. The mainland is now the favorite investment target for Taiwan business. At least 40,000 Taiwan firms have officially invested in mainland China, employing some 10 million workers.

Taiwanese business is already changing local attitudes. Few mainlanders talk about retaking Taiwan. "We don't care about war. We just want those leaders to open direct trade, said a mainland woman selling Taiwan sorghum liquor and sex toys in a special cross-straits market in Fujian. "Our president wants it. What's his name [Chen Shui-Bian] wants it too, but his government is more complicated than ours. So we'll have to wait." Residents on both sides, who share family ties, similar customs, and a common linguistic dialect, have long agitated for "the three small links"--direct connections between mainland cities and nearby Taiwan-controlled islands, Jinmen and Mazu. "Fujian has a special role to play in promoting peaceful reunification," says Chen Minyi, the Communist Party secretary of Fujian province.

The port towns of Fujian are already dripping with the seamier elements of Taiwanese culture. Taiwan bosses wearing heavy gold jewelry hang out in Taiwan-run coffeeshops such as the upscale Cafe Show, where boss Chen Ju-Yu says she'll open five new restaurants in China. Xiamen residents expect a highway will link their city with Jinmen and Mazu islands, less than a couple of miles away, within a year or two. One Chinese resident recently found printed fliers advertising the sale of Taiwan satellite TV to Xiamen homes, including installation and tech support. "Within a couple weeks, satellite dishes sprung up on balconies all around my apartment," he says. Local favorites: Taiwanese soap operas and sword flicks.

Taiwan tourism is also booming in Fujian. For this year's traditional gravesweeping festival, a record number of Taiwanese visited the mainland tombs of their ancestors. More than 6,000 flew into the provincial capital of Fuzhou in the later half of March alone, a 10 percent increase over 1999. Last year 100,000 Taiwanese visitors flocked to the Mazu temple in Meizhou. In mid-April, 45 Taiwan pilgrims packed into six fishing boats and sailed directly to Meizhou, a rough 20-hour crossing; despite Taipei's ban, such trips are increasingly common. Mainlanders welcomed the visitors. A Taipei government spokesman declared that the pilgrims were subject to three years' imprisonment or a fine of up to 15 million New Taiwan dollars. They won't likely be jailed; recently Taipei authorized voyages to Meizhou for 6,000 Taiwanese religious pilgrims next month.

Can tourism and business overcome decades of mutual antagonism? Mushrooming Taiwanese investments will pressure Beijing to solve matters peacefully; with shrinking foreign investments from elsewhere, China needs Taiwanese money. "After all, we're brothers," said Yang Ying, a successful Xiamen entrepreneur. "More and more Taiwanese go to school here now. Maybe someday one will be Taiwan's Minister of Defense--and he'll decide against war with us because of his warm memories." That's a hopeful thought--except that the decision is really in Beijing's hands.