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.