Reporting from TAIPEI, Taiwan —
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.
If you understand the election results, you can figure out people’s attitude toward the mainland.
— Chen Erdong, a telecommunications engineer from the mainland
“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.
A pro-democracy protester rests in his tent with suitcase ready, before the police arrive to clear the main protest site in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Dec. 11. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP/Getty Images)
Workers clear barricades at an occupied area in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Dec. 11. (Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
Workers remove a barricade in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong on Nov. 25. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
A student reads a book in his tent at the pro-democracy movement’s main protest site in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Dec. 2. (Johannes Eisele / AFP/Getty Images)
A security staff member, center, removes a barricade outside the Citic Tower at a protest site in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Nov 18. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
An older man shares his opposing views with pro-democracy student protesters in Mong Kok. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)
Pro-democracy protesters push against police as they break down barricades and retake streets in Mong Kok. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
Police armed with bolt cutters, chainsaws and sledgehammers made a renewed attempt to remove barricades along a stretch of the main protest site held by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong on October 14, 2014. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers arrest a protester in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong. Dozens of masked men rushed barricades at Hong Kong’s main pro-democracy site, triggering clashes as demonstrators tried to push them back and police struggled to contain the chaos. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP/Getty Images)
Police cordon an area where pro-democracy demonstrators confront those protesting them in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Oct. 13. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman, left, confronts a pro-democracy protester in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Oct. 13. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy demonstrators shout slogans at those protesting them in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong. (Pedro Ugarte / AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protester in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong, where police started removing street barricades at sites where demonstrators have been holding rallies, paralyzing parts of the Chinese financial hub. (Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters stand next to barricades as police officers gather in the central district of Hong Kong on Oct. 13. (Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protester sits in front of Hong Kong police in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong on Oct. 13. (Rolex Dela Pena / EPA)
A woman walks past a wall of messages of support for protesters in Hong Kong on Oct. 7. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protester sleeps beneath messages of support in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Oct. 7. (Ed Jones / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman steps on a portrait of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying depicted as a vampire as she steps around barricades set up by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong on Oct. 7. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
A government loyalist demonstrator shouts at democracy protesters in the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3. (Jerome Taylor / AFP/Getty Images)
A group of men in masks rough up a man, right, who tried to stop them from removing barricades from a pro-democracy protest area in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on Friday. (Alex Ogle / AFP/Getty Images)
Police take an injured man from the confrontation of pro-democracy student protesters and angry local residents in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, on Friday. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)
A pro-democracy student protester scales a traffic light pole in defiance of local residents demanding them to leave their occupied roads in Hong Kong on Friday. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)
A woman shouts during violent scenes in Mong Kok on Day 6 of the mass civil disobedience campaign Occupy Central in Hong Kong. (Alex Hofford / EPA)
A Hong Kong police officer confronts a protester. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
Pro-democracy demonstrators face policemen outside the Legislative Counsel office in Hong Kong. Protesters want the territory’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, to step down. He says he won’t. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
An aerial view of violent scenes in Mong Kok, Hong Kong, on Day 6 of the mass civil disobedience campaign Occupy Central. (Alex Hofford / EPA)
Student demonstrators raise their hands to show their nonviolent intentions during a change of shift for local police. A mass gathering in Hong Kong is a reaction to an August decision by China’s central government that would require a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates in the territory’s first direct elections for chief executive in 2017. (Wong Maye-E / Associated Press)
Protesters shout slogans at police outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. (Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)
Notes of support are posted on the wall of an encampment of pro-democracy student protesters outside the government complex in Hong Kong. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)
A protester working as a medical volunteer sleeps in a makeshift supplies area on an overpass in Hong Kong. (Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)
A man passes umbrellas displaying slogans in the protesters’ encampment outside the Hong Kong government complex. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)
A protester and a Hong Kong police officer are wedged tightly together. (Alex Hofford / EPA)
A man holds a sign that reads “Don’t go to school” as a pro-democracy rally continues in Hong Kong. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator near government headquarters in Hong Kong checks his phone. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protestor sits in the road near the Hong Kong government headquarters. (Laurent Fievet / AFP/Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protester sleeps at Tamar Park in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
A Civil Disobedience sign written on the street in chalk in Hong Kong, where thousands of pro-democracy supporters continue to occupy the streets surrounding Hong Kong’s financial district. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
A woman holds a placard at a large pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. (Alex Ogle / AFP/Getty Images)
Barricades are installed to block traffic on a multilane highway as pro-democracy protests take place in Hong Kong. (Alex Ogle / AFP/Getty Images)
Umbrellas are painted with slogans at the protest site as the numbers of protesters continue to grow in Hong Kong. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)
A pro-democracy activist shouts slogans on a street near the government headquarters where protesters have made camp. (Wong Maye-E / Associated Press)
Mainland China tourists walk past the luxury boutiques of Tsim Shai Tsui district in Hong Kong. Despite the expansion of the pro-democracy protests to the luxury shopping district, most mainlanders were more interested in shopping than in political activities. (Wally Santana / Associated Press)
Pro-democracy demonstrators sit on tram tracks with a graffito of an umbrella on the fourth day of the mass civil disobedience campaign in Hong Kong. (Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA)
Pro-democracy demonstrators display placards as they gather near a ceremony marking China’s 65th National Day in Hong Kong on Wednesday. (Philippe Lopez / AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters shout slogans outside a flag-raising ceremony marking China’s National Day on Wednesday where Hong Kong’s embattled leader Leung Chun-ying attended. (Vincent Yu / AP)
Protesters sing and wave their cellphones after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong government complex on Sept. 30. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters hold up their mobile phones after heavy rain in Hong Kong. (Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of pro democracy supporters continue to occupy the streets surrounding Hong Kong’s financial district on Sept. 30. (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
A pro-democracy demonstrator gestures after police fired tear gas near the Hong Kong government headquarters. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters use umbrellas to shield themselves from heavy rain. (Anthony Wallace / AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters sing and wave their cellphones after a massive thunderstorm outside the Hong Kong government complex. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
High school students hand out water and food outside the Hong Kong government center. (Chris McGrath / Getty Images)
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
A police car is blocked by protesters after thousands of people block a main road to the financial central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29. (Dale de la Rey / AFP/Getty Images)
A protester sings songs and plays guitar on a street in Hong Kong as thousands of pro-democracy supporters have remained in the streets of Hong Kong for another day of protests. (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters sit on a road as they face off with police in Hong Kong. (Wong Maye-E / Associated Press)
Pro-democracy protesters take afternoon naps on the streets in Hong Kong on Monday. (Wong Maye-E / Associated Press)
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters. (Dale de la Rey / AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator gestures opposite policemen during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers stand in a cloud of tear gas during a demonstration in Hong Kong. (Xaume Olleros / AFP/Getty Images)
A student is taken away by policemen at the government headquarters in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
Police officers reacts outside a government complex in Hong Kong, as thousands of students started a week-long boycott of classes in protest against Beijing’s conservative framework for political reform in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
A student pro-democracy protester covers his face in plastic wrap to protect against pepper spray in the event that activists face a stand-off with local police on Monday. (Wong Maye-E / AP)
Visitors view the latest newspaper coverage following clashes between activists and police at a sit-in protest in Hong Kong on Monday. (Wally Santana / AP)
A protester sits in the middle of a tunnel in Central on Monday in Hong Kong. (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
Police fire tear gas at pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014. (Aaron Tam / AFP/Getty Images)
Riot police use pepper spray against protesters after thousands of people blocked a main road to the financial central district in Hong Kong on Sept. 28. (Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
Police confront pro-democracy protesters. (Xaume Olleros / AFPGetty Images)
Demonstrators disperse as tear gas is fired by police on Sept. 29, 2014. (Anthony Kwan / Getty Images)
Protesters pour water over the head of a fellow demonstrator during riots that followed a pro-democracy protest on Sept. 28, 2014. (Xaume Olleros / AFPGetty Images)
Police officers stand in a cloud of tear gas. (Xaume Olleros / AFPGetty Images)
Pro-democracy protesters confront police in Hong Kong early Saturday. (Vincent Yu / Associated Press)
A protester holds a sign during a pro-democracy rally in a plaza at Hong Kong’s main government compound Saturday. (Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images)
Students protesting for greater democratic rights march in Hong Kong on Sept. 24. (Xaume Olleros / AFP / Getty Images)
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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