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By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - On June 28, the first batch of Chinese tourists to use Taiwan's newly implemented free independent traveler (FIT) program set foot on Taiwanese soil. During the initial phase of the initiative, 500 mainland visitors are allowed per day.

With none of the limitations on movements suffered by predecessors, the FITs are certain to experience a Chinese society immensely different to their own. On the island, the elbowing and pushing so prevalent in mainland China's cities is conspicuous by its absence. In Taiwan, the young yield to the elderly on public transport, while the rich apologize after having accidentally trampled on the have-not's foot.

Both Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT) government and Western scholars have high hopes that the opening of the island to individual mainland tourists is a meaningful process. First, the mainland Chinese will see, appreciate and internalize. Then, they will head back, slowly but steadily changing China for the better. According to these optimistic predictions, mainland FITs are not paving the way for unification, but instead weakening the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) grip on its subjects' minds.

The most brilliant propagandists are those who master the fine art of omission, while mediocre ones resort to lying. If there is a total lack of people-to-people exchanges between Society A and Society B, either method suffices for pulling the wool over people's eyes. Once it stood, cementing the Iron Curtain that divided Europe was relatively easy, and likewise it was easy for propagandists to dig the Taiwan Strait deeper and wider.

In an interview given to Asia Times Online, Bonnie S Glaser, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Freeman Chair in China Studies, gave a personal account on how much clout propagandists had on the two cross-strait societies' mutual understanding back in the days when people-to-people exchanges were forbidden.

"When I lived in Taiwan in 1979, no one from Taiwan was permitted to travel to the mainland. People's understanding of the conditions in the mainland were determined solely by what they read or were told," Glaser recalled.

She then described how she, after having visited the mainland, came back to Taiwan and shared the pictures of her visit with the Taiwanese family she lived with. "They were surprised in many ways. They had been told that people in China were so poor that they ate banana peels. Of course, China wasn't very prosperous then, but people were not starving either," Glaser said.

Ever since Taiwanese businesspeople were allowed to invest in mainland China about two decades ago, with many thousands setting up shops on the other side, the effect of KMT propaganda as described by Glaser naturally became increasingly insignificant in Taiwan. On the other side, however, due to the one-way nature of exchanges, Chinese Communist Party propagandists had an easier task.

Then, in 2008, the KMT's President Ma Ying-jeou agreed with Beijing to lift a travel ban on group tours by mainlanders. The number of Chinese mainland tourists that have arrived on such trips has now surpassed 2.3 million. Each Chinese tourist spent the most among tourists from all countries and regions, shelling out an average of US$138 per day last year. Few doubt that the inflow of mainlanders amounts to a major boost to Taiwanese economy.

Regardless how much money they might be bringing in, the masses of tourists coming in package tours are hardly likely to return to change China for the better. This is because their itineraries are strictly regulated with tour guides not only dictating where the visitors rest, dine and shop, but reportedly even confiscating passports to prevent independent strolls.

However, this hasn't totally prevented meaningful encounters between Chinese and Taiwanese. According to tour operators, some mainland members of package tours steadfastly declined taking part in day trips in order to watch uncensored political TV talk shows and news in their hotel rooms. Local media have reported that Chinese interns at Taiwan's legislature were "shocked" when they saw how lawmakers could question senior government officials.

Although purely anecdotal, to Glaser, these are welcome signs.

"Today, mainland Chinese visit Taiwan and watch the talk shows on TV and can hear constant criticism of the government," she said.

"I have no doubt that it influences their thinking about the role of citizens in politics, and am therefore a great fan of more exchanges and more dialogue. Tourism is important; having students live in each other's societies for longer periods is even more important," Glaser concluded.

In terms of mainland students attending Taiwanese universities, the rules are restrictive. Starting this autumn semester, a first batch of students from China will arrive. Due to a long and bitter legislative bargaining process between the KMT and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), only 2,000 will be allowed each year.

Apart from the DPP's hallmark suspiciousness of Beijing, there are weighty tactical reasons more concerned with Taiwanese domestic politics that make it hard for the DPP to welcome mainland FITs, or anyone coming from across the strait.

In an interview, John F Copper, a Stanley J Buckman professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, explained the opposition party's plight.

"Allowing individual Chinese tourists to come to Taiwan will enlarge the positive economic influence China has on Taiwan, and also expand this economic benefit to more businesses and especially smaller ones," Copper argued, singling out taxi drivers as a prominent example.

"After the opening to FITs, many new restaurants, hotels and shops will be able to compete for the Chinese tourist business. This will counter the charge used quite effectively by the DPP during the [2010] November election that Taiwan's economic growth, which the KMT and President Ma boasted about, disproportionately helped the rich, large business and the northern part of Taiwan," Copper said.

In the elections Copper referred to, the KMT narrowly managed to keep control of three of Taiwan's five biggest cities, but the DPP won the popular vote.

Copper holds that while the FIT program puts the DPP in a dilemma - party leaders do not want to be seen as undermining any economic benefits, especially for small business and DPP strongholds in the south - it will likely benefit the Ma administration. "Ma promised to tear down barriers, and certainly the opening to the FITs is proof that he's fulfilling this promise," Copper said.

He had a different take on what type of mainlander would make it across the Taiwan Strait under the program, and what kind of repercussions their vacations would have.

"Individual visitors will probably be younger and want to see how Taiwan's political system and society work more than tourists coming with a group. They will foster much more people-to-people contact, which will give Taiwan's people a different impression of China," Copper forecast.

He believes that as the first FITs will come from China's big cities, they will likely be more cosmopolitan, richer, better educated, more curious, have friends or relatives in Taiwan, and that there might be more businesspeople and academics among them.

"They will convey a more positive view of China, especially the progress China has experienced since the end of the Mao [Zedong] era," Copper reasoned.

He argues that while during the Chen Shui-bian presidency many people in China got the impression that Taiwan's democracy was chaotic and as a consequence the Taiwan model of democracy became less attractive in China, this could all change.

"Taiwan's democracy may now be seen in a new and more positive light, especially if Chinese visitors see the legislative yuan, other organs of government and even local government in operation. Also, if they talk about politics to the people they encounter, they will certainly understand Taiwan better and this will be mostly positive in its impact," Copper said.

Leaving politics aside, in regard to the overall impression of Taiwan, the mainland FITs could well be surprised, and not only by the public transport etiquette.

"They will likely see Taiwan as a whole less influenced by Japan, less traditional, less provincial and having less of an island mentality than they thought. They will also find Taiwan's cities less modern than they expected. The mainland tourists will also note that Taiwan is more like China than Hong Kong, Tibet and many parts of China they have likely visited," said Copper.

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.