Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) says government officials are indulging in wasteful “fact-finding” trips to mainland China. Even worse, others suspect that in China these officials become part of networks set up by the Chinese Communist Party to manipulate Taiwanese politics.
There are 370 weekly flights across the Taiwan Strait, with most seats occupied by either Taiwanese businesspeople or Chinese tourists. However, the DPP says a number of ruling Kuomintang (KMT) officials blend in with the crowd. It’s not only the ruling party’s big shots, says the opposition; legislators, city-councilors, mayors and even petty chiefs of districts and boroughs are heading to the mainland on a variety of pretenses.
“I meet foreign diplomats in Taipei quite often. In the past two
years they’ve complained that it’s difficult to make appointments with governmental officials,” said Hsieh Huai-Hui, deputy director of DPP International Affairs Department, in an interview given to Asia Times Online. “This is because they spend most of their time visiting China,” said Hsieh.
She cited the case of the head of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council. “The person supposed to promote Taiwan’s foreign trade to the global market spends more than six or seven months a year traveling all over mainland China,” said Hsieh.
At the end of May, a group of officials came under fire for visiting Chinese airports as part of a special report on the competitiveness of Taiwanese airports. The DPP blasted the legislators for choosing Shanghai’s Hongqiao and Pudong airports, claiming both were in the bottom half of international airport rankings and lacked any similarities with Taiwan’s hubs.
“We think that while this was a fake inspection, it was a real vacation,” DPP legislator Gao Jyh-peng told a press conference.
In response, the KMT said there were plans to turn over the operation of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, the island’s main hub, to a new state-owned company – the trip was justified as Hongqiao and Pudong operate in a similar fashion.
The travels of Chang Jin-chen, chief of Taipei’s Neihu district, were also recently dragged into the spotlight. Chang was accused by DPP Taipei City councilors of having visited China more than 10 times over the past two years.
When approached for clarification, district chief Chang told Asia Times Online, “From 2008 to 2010, I went abroad twice, giving in to friends who had invited me over and over again,” said Chang. “In 2011, because of trips with borough chiefs, friends and relatives who happened to have travel arrangements and also as the chairman of a mediation committee, I went four times; with a mayors’ cross-strait forum, it then came to five times in total.”
Chang said it would be better if the DPP tackled issues important for the city, such as construction and reform, instead of attacking and discrediting opponents.
Chen In-Chin, a professor at the National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, say the Taiwanese officials’ excursions were aimed at easing their workload and furthering their business ambitions.
“These officials have to write a report expounding what they have observed and what lessons can be drawn, and visiting China is easier than other countries. Relevant documentation printed in simplified Chinese can quickly be changed into Taiwan’s traditional script, China is very convenient,” said Chen.
Chen sees profit as the officials’ main motivation. “Many members of the KMT and also of the DPP have big businesses running in China. They hold stakes in the Chinese stock market, and also low-ranking officials have an interest in China because they believe China’s currency and real estate will increase in value. The Taiwanese officials can use their fact-finding tours to tend to their businesses or shop for Chinese currency and property,” said Chen.
Chen furthermore shed light on other ways the Taiwanese fact-finders could benefit from the visits
“The officials use their position to establish connections in China. So after they have left office, they take advantage of these connections. A former Taiwanese agriculture minister is now heading a mainland agriculture association, and there are many, many likewise cases,” said Chen.
He also expounded on the motives of the Chinese side.
“Of course, Beijing deliberately cultivates these exchanges. It is estimated that in China there are 300,000 civil servants assigned to handle the Taiwan issue. This is enough to give each and every visiting Taiwanese official a warm reception; the higher the rank, the warmer the reception.”
Chen said that it’s Beijing’s strategy to set up networks. In these cross-strait networks, important issues are premeditated, only to be formally rubber-stamped later in Taiwan, becoming law and policies.
“Beijing has a lot of money for these networks. This money is propaganda money, and Beijing has decided to spend this propaganda money on virtually every Taiwanese citizen, not only on the high-ranking members of Taiwan’s government,” said Chen.
However, there are still indications that these “fake” fact-finding tours and other official shenanigans do not necessarily lead into the arms of Beijing. Last year, a merry and harmonious crowd comprised of both KMT and DPP lawmakers was caught by Taiwanese TV crews skipping meetings to go shopping in Tokyo.
Huang Hua-hsi, a legislative aide, told Asia Times Online that the politicians he had dealt with preferred visiting Europe and North America to China.
“On the one hand, they want to learn from advanced countries; on the other hand, they also want to make a real vacation out of their trip,” said Huang.