For the broader cohort that once might have once felt a connection to the island, cross-strait travel is not an option because of strained relations between the two sides. The result has been less people-to-people contact, and now many young mainland Chinese raised on Taiwanese pop culture say cross-strait tensions, the pandemic and stereotypes have made the island feel increasingly distant.

However, observers say they are watching for signs of whether cross-strait travel and other exchanges will improve following the inauguration of Taiwan’s next president William Lai Ching-te on May 20.
William Lai of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party will be inaugurated as Taiwan’s president on May 20. Photo: EPA-EFE

Mainland tourists need the approval of both mainland and Taiwanese authorities to travel to the island. Beijing first allowed individual mainland tourists to travel to Taiwan in 2011, with residents of 47 cities granted access to the island as of 2015, before the policy was changed.

However, most third-tier cities – including Wang’s hometown in Hunan province – were not on the list. Wang hoped for the day when his city would join the list and make him eligible for individual travel to Taiwan, “but the chance never came”.

Cross-strait relations soured after Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became president in 2016 and refused to recognise the 1992 consensus – an understanding that there is only one China but each side has its own interpretation of what that means.

Beijing sees the consensus as the basis of any cross-strait communication and suspended travel to the island by individual mainland tourists in 2019. Things worsened with the Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020, when Taiwan suspended arrivals by all visitors and Beijing suspended all group travel.

Both sides reopened their borders after the pandemic – but largely not to each other.

But in April, Beijing allowed the first group of mainland tourists – limited to those from Fujian province travelling in groups – to go to Matsu, a Taiwan-governed archipelago near the mainland coast.

Beijing also pledged to allow Fujian residents to go on group tours when direct flights resumed between Fujian’s Pingtan Island and Taiwan – an offer Taipei rejected as limited and not reciprocal.

According to Taiwanese Transport and Communications Minister Wang Kwo-tsai, the scope of the proposal was “too narrow”, and the government needed to discuss further.

Taipei had planned to allow group tours to the mainland but that was shelved in February after Beijing adjusted a civil flight path near the sensitive median line in the Taiwan Strait and made no reciprocal offers.

Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office on Wednesday urged the DPP to meet “strong calls from the public on both sides to normalise cross-strait people exchanges” and “lift all unreasonable restrictions and bans as soon as possible”.

The office accused Taiwan’s ruling party of ignoring calls and “blindly smearing and attacking the mainland” out of political interest.

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Chinese tourists stranded on mountain during Golden Week holiday

Chinese tourists stranded on mountain during Golden Week holiday

Wang Yingjin, director of the Centre for Cross-Strait Relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said the mainland’s resumption and expected expansion of cross-strait exchanges “expressed kindness”.

Any further steps, he said, would hinge on Lai’s inauguration speech.

“If he makes ‘Taiwan independence’ remarks in his speech on May 20, it will certainly affect the mainland’s attitude towards restarting cross-strait individual travel,” he said.

Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out the possibility of using force for unification. Most countries, including the US, do not recognise the island as an independent state but are opposed to a change in the status quo by force.

Ho Chih-yung, a professor of general education at National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, south of Taipei, said he believed Lai would keep a “low profile” at the inauguration as the DPP did not have a majority in the legislature.

He said the start of the new administration would be the right time to reinstate previous travel rules as a step towards preventing a “downward spiral” in cross-strait relations.

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But there were issues, such as disturbances to locals and travel company monopolies, that needed to be addressed when cross-strait travel resumed, Ho said.

Wang of Renmin University said the reduction in people-to-people and economic links in recent years had added to the distance between people on both sides, adding that “the mainland general public’s favourability towards Taiwanese has declined as their general agreement on ‘one China’ has declined”.

While cross-strait exchanges would gradually resume, they would “hardly attain the scale and level of the exchanges during Ma Ying-jeou’s administration”, he said, referring to the island’s former president.

After Ma of the mainland-friendly Kuomintang came to power in 2008, Beijing and Taipei signed an agreement to allow group tours travelling between the mainland and the self-ruled island. Individual travel quotas for specific cities began in 2011.

Echo Li, a magazine editor based in Beijing, was one of hundreds of thousands of mainland tourists to take advantage of the short-lived policy.

A fan of 1980s Taiwan New Wave cinema, Li visited some filming locations in Taipei in 2019 – just months before Beijing banned individual mainland tourists from travelling to the island.

“I felt quite lucky to have caught the last chance before the pandemic to travel to Taiwan,” the 27-year-old said.

Since the halt of cross-strait tourism, “there has probably been a feeling of distance from Taiwan”, Li said, adding that since the pandemic, the sense of distance has been “not only with Taiwan, but the world”.

Mainland China’s “post-90s” generation grew up listening to Taiwanese singers such as “Queen of C-pop” Jolin Tsai, pictured here, and Jay Chou. Photo: Handout

Even before the pandemic, the affinity for Taiwanese entertainment did not necessarily translate into a willingness to travel to the island.

Molly Wang, a postgraduate student from mainland China, noticed that reluctance when she was invited on a trip to Taiwan with friends while studying abroad in 2018.

While she liked Taiwanese romance dramas and thought of the island as a romantic place, she had concerns.

“I was actually a bit worried because I heard there were many pro-Taiwan independence forces and that sounded scary … or [the locals] might treat me badly when they heard my mainland accent,” she said.

“But [locals] were actually really friendly to me … and I did see pro-independence flags and Falun Gong, but they did no harm to me,” the 24-year-old said.

Her trip took her along the island’s southwestern coast, from Kaohsiung to the southern tip of Kenting, and while she remembered the beaches as “exceptionally pretty”, she might not be keen to make the trip today if she had not already experienced it in person.

Wang, from Jiangxi province, said her friends – especially those who grew up in inland China like she did – seldom put Taiwan on their list of travel destinations as they were unfamiliar with the culture on the island.

“They had a feeling that they would need extra preparation and had to be cautious about their words and actions,” she said.