Ending Long Ban, Taiwanese Liner Lands in China

Times Staff Writer

For the first time in 53 years, a commercial airliner from Taiwan touched down Sunday in China, turning a page in the turbulent history between the two rivals.

A China Airlines Boeing 747-400 picked up 243 passengers from Shanghai's Pudong International Airport, part of an initiative allowing six carriers from the island to ferry Taiwanese in China home for the Lunar New Year holiday.

"This is a significant breakthrough in cross-strait relations," Shanghai Vice Mayor Han Zheng said at a welcoming ceremony before the Taiwanese crew members took off again for their capital, Taipei.

The political overtones of the landing were kept to a minimum. There were no flags or anthems. A couple of traditional Chinese lion dancers and the Taiwanese carrier's symphonic theme gave the event its only touch of drama.

"We used our action to shorten the emotional distance between Taiwan and the mainland," said Wei Hsing-hsiung, president of China Airlines.

A commercial flight between Shanghai and Taipei could be made in just over an hour. But the decades-long political standoff between China and Taiwan has stretched that journey to nearly six hours, as passengers must first fly to Hong Kong or the neighboring territory of Macao and change planes to accommodate a ban on direct travel.

A deeply divided Taiwanese government couldn't agree on a deal to forgo the layover for the New Year charter flights. So passengers Sunday still had to make a symbolic stop in Hong Kong, get out of the plane and re-board. The airliner landed in Taipei four hours after leaving here.

The detour underscores how Cold War politics linger in spite of the economic integration between the two sides.

More than 1 million Taiwanese are believed to be living and working on the Chinese mainland, about 300,000 in the Shanghai area alone. Taiwanese businesses have pumped an estimated $100 billion into the Chinese economy.

The chartered flights were supposed to make it more convenient for the Taiwanese to go home during the holiday rush. Instead, wrangling delayed a decision on their timing and route, forcing potential passengers to seek other options.

"This is nothing more than a political showpiece," said Chen Pin, a Taiwanese businessman who has written several best-sellers about how to live and work in Shanghai. "The flight is not cheaper, not more convenient. It is no benefit to us at all."

Many Taiwanese, like Chen, booked a normal flight home, partly because the charter flights are more restrictive. The tickets must be purchased as a round trip, with no possibility of transfers or changes. Sunday's flight was only 70% full, according to China Airlines officials.

But both sides agreed that the initiative marks an important step toward the so-called three links: full normalization of trade, communication and travel across the Taiwan Strait. On Friday, Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen called it "the trend of the times, the desire of the people and the most pressing matter of the moment."

Even those Taiwanese fearful of reunification with their giant neighbor see how the anachronistic ban might be harmful to the island's interests. In fact, some argue that freer cross-strait ties are the only way to plug the exodus of people and money that has drained the local economy.

"Three links saves money and energy. If you don't provide these conveniences, Taiwanese businesspeople will settle down in Shanghai, buy homes there," said Hsu Jung-shu, a legislator and a member of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. "If the trip takes only one hour, they can leave in the morning and return in the evening. That way, they will keep their roots in Taiwan."

Others argue that the economic and cultural benefits of life on the mainland are so strong that islanders will keep commuting no matter how arduous the journey.

"We've long factored in that extra cost as part of our investment in China," said Chen, the businessman turned author. "Direct link or not, we will go."

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