Taiwan's upcoming vote is attracting election tourists

Chen Erdong, a 28-year-old telecommunications engineer from mainland China, has visited Taiwan twice in the last two months, but it's not the usual tourist sites such as the National Palace Museum or Sun Moon Lake that have him so intrigued.

Instead, he's been checking out novelties such as street parades packed with flag-waving partisans, noisy political debate shows on TV and campaign swag stamped with the photos and cartoon likenesses of candidates vying to become Taiwan's next leaders.

On Saturday, Taiwanese voters will pick a new president and parliament, something people in communist-run mainland China cannot do.

"For me, it's most important to know what the Taiwan public is feeling," said Chen, who added he has taken every opportunity to broach politics with salespeople, travel guides and hotel owners. "If you understand the election results, you can figure out people's attitude toward the mainland."

Taiwan's elections, he added circumspectly, might be able to "open the eyes" of mainland Chinese.

The island has been self-ruled since 1949, when China's civil war ended in the Communists' victory on the mainland and the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan, which eventually transitioned from one-party rule to democracy in the late 1980s.

Beijing continues to maintain that Taiwan is part of "one China" and must be reunited with the mainland someday. And it tries to limit the number of its citizens who visit Taiwan at election time, apparently lest mainlanders get inspired by the democratic fervor on the island of 23 million.

Nevertheless, the "election tourism" phenomenon is continuing and perhaps even expanding; this year, many high-profile democracy activists from the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong are flying to Taiwan to witness the final stump speeches and Saturday's balloting.

Among them is Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 Hong Kong street protests known as the Umbrella Movement. Taiwan "is kind of a good reference" for Hong Kong, said Wong, who has expressed interest in running for Hong Kong's Legislative Council this fall.

Some Taiwanese politicians say they're happy to try to share what they've learned — and counter Chinese government propaganda that democracy is a political model incompatible with Chinese circumstances or customs.

"I think the most important message we can send is: Democracy is possible in the Chinese-speaking society, contrary to what the Communist Party has claimed," said Huang Kuo-chang, chairman of Taiwan's upstart New Power Party.

The NPP grew out of Taiwan's 2014 Sunflower Movement, which saw student protesters occupy the national legislature over a controversial trade agreement with Beijing.

Though Hong Kongers have long been able to visit Taiwan, mainland Chinese tourists have been allowed to travel to the island en masse only since 2008, when Taipei and Beijing began setting aside deep political differences to build trust through economic links. Mainland tourist arrivals reached a record 3.95 million in 2014, mostly coming in groups for guided trips.

What they find is a place quite familiar — in terms of language, cuisine and some customs — but radically different too.

Yang Bo, a lecturer in law at Beijing Open University, arrived in Taiwan this week to join a study tour sponsored by a local nonprofit to show non-Taiwanese the election process. The group of Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese and Australians was visiting the headquarters of the two main political parties — the Nationalists and the Democratic Progressive Party — as well as taking in minor parties' events.

Though many visitors are impressed by the raucousness of Taiwanese electioneering, Yang said he expected to find campaigning even more boisterous, in part because his references for political struggles are episodes such as China's 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which resulted in millions of deaths. (Other mainlanders say their most striking impression of Taiwanese democracy comes from news reports on the periodic shoving matches and punches thrown in Taiwan's legislative chamber.)

"Taiwan's whole election affair is very calm," Yang said. "My sense was that it would be more active or rowdy. We had such a long Cultural Revolution, so that's our Chinese people's way of looking at things."

As for whether Taiwan might serve as any sort of example for the mainland, Yang said China can't replicate Taiwan and must "go slowly" toward any democratization. China, he added, can only "borrow from" Taiwan's experience.

Taiwan's tourism authority has not released arrival figures for December or January, but a staffer said visits from the mainland fell before previous elections such as the 2012 presidential vote. She expects a drop of up to 50% this month compared with January 2015 as the Chinese government holds back issuing permits for group travel.

"The election is very sensitive, so it's hard to get permits," said Winny Hsieh, who handles inbound tourism for Martin Travel in Taipei, Taiwan's capital.

Before Taiwanese elections, China advises agents to "be a bit careful of travel safety," said Tang Wen-chi, who works in the Taiwan Tourism Bureau office in charge of mainland Chinese travel. In particular, China advises agents to avoid taking tourists to "spontaneous events," Tang said.

But individual travelers can still get in.

Joseph Yu-shek Cheng, a retired professor of political science from Hong Kong who is now a leader in the Taiwan-based New School for Democracy, organized a group of 20 activists to come to Taiwan this week to engage with the election process and attend seminars.

The school offers online and in-person classes on nonviolent campaigns and basic political science topics. On Monday, the group held a seminar and invited prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who is now teaching in the United States, to attend. Among the participants, said Cheng, were at least seven students from Macau and several dozen mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan.

"Mainland students studying in Taiwan are an important target group for our work" of promoting democracy in China, said Cheng. "There are thousands, they are interested, and they feel" what's at work here, he said.

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Cheng said Chinese authorities are "extremely angry and the pro-Beijing media severely criticize people like me trying to do this kind of networking." But he said he believed it's important to bring Hong Kongers and others to Taiwan to see the election process. "It's a psychological boost. They come to Taiwan and see elections can change things."

But not every mainland Chinese tourist in Taiwan this week was interested in the island's political machinations.

Geng Yaping, 24, a visitor from China's Henan province who was visiting the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in central Taipei, said the election has "nothing to do with me, so I haven't been following it.... Ever since we were children, we have been taught if something does not concern the [social] class to which we belong, we need not care."

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But if she could vote, Geng said she would support the "Nationalists, because they are against Taiwan independence."

Jian Leiming, 33, another mainlander visiting the Chiang memorial, said he too would support the Nationalists if he could vote. But he professed an indifference to the entire process.

"In mainland China, the National People's Congress delegates have the votes, not the ordinary people," he said, referring to China's rubber-stamp legislature. "We are just not interested. Such a right doesn't matter … as long we have stability, and the people can do whatever they want."

Jennings is a special correspondent.


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A version of this article appeared in print on January 14, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Taiwan election a tourist attraction to some Chinese" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe