Taiwan, China set up historic air link

The Guardian

Beijing, January 29:

A mainland Chinese airliner touched down in Taiwan for the first time on Tuesday since the two sides were split by civil war more than 50 years ago.

The historic non-stop flight is one of 48 being laid on for the Chinese new year. It is a rare positive development in cross-straits relations more usually characterised by bellicose rhetoric, missile deployments and political brinkmanship.

Since 1948 mutual animosity and suspicion have made it impossible for the two sides to arrange direct flights. Beijing refused to recognise any of the authorities from what it considers a renegade province. The Taiwanese military also opposed the opening of commercial routes, fearing they would be used as a cover for bombers and planes carrying paratroops But under a one-off agreement signed by the two governments this month, six Taiwanese and six mainland carriers will operate charter flights throughout the spring festival from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to Taipei and Kaohsiung.

The carriers have gone to great expense to impress their first customers with gimmicks such as new uniforms, crystal tableware and gilded commemorative statues of the Great Wall, in the hope that this will one day lead to the opening of regular routes.

The start of the lunar new year on February 9, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, is traditionally a time when migrant workers and business people return to their home towns.

For the approximately one million Taiwanese living on the mainland, this usually involves a circuitous and expensive journey via Hong Kong or Macau. By flying non-stop the time it takes to travel from Shanghai to Taipei is halved to two and a half hours and the cost of a ticket is about 20 per cent cheaper than the usual 4,500 yuan. “I am very happy with this arrangement,’’ said Zhang Meiyun, a Shanghai-based magazine employee who will be among the passengers on the holiday flights. “This is an exception. We don’t know if it will happen again. Everything depends on the relationship between the two sides.’’ A limited number of special flights was also laid on for the spring festival two years ago, but the carriers were Taiwanese and they were obliged to stopover briefly in Hong Kong or Macau. Beijing refused to allow any chartered planes to touch down last year, to show its disapproval of the independence-oriented president of Taiwan, Chen Sui-bian, ahead of his election.

For all this, the prospects of a political thaw are low. The governments have not talked to each other for more than five years. Although Beijing has offered negotiations, its tough conditions are thought unlikely to tempt Taipei. Even the non-stop flights are not truly direct. In a diplomatic fudge, they have to pass through the airspace of Hong Kong or Macau.

“This is a typical Chinese way of doing things,’’ said Yang Kaiping, a Taiwanese businessman in Beijing. “They do something, but only with great hesitation. The two sides could not agree to a real direct flight.’’