Direct Flights Take Off Between China, Taiwan

While the U.S. celebrates its freedom this Fourth of July weekend, there's a new freedom being inaugurated a half a world away. Direct weekend flights between mainland China and Taiwan start this weekend. It's the clearest sign of rapprochement since the two sides split apart in 1949.

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Now to a high-flying sign of the warming relations between China and Taiwan. This weekend's first direct commercial flights between them since they split in 1949. Taiwanese have been able to travel to China for a while now but this is the first time mainland Chinese tourists can visit Taiwan.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn went on one of the first flights.

Unidentified Woman: Flight 8U7987 to Taipei is now boarding.

ANTHONY KUHN: For now, mainlanders can only go to Taiwan with groups, like the China Sunrise Travel package tour lining up in their matching pink polo shirts at the Beijing Airport. For the next ten days, the group will circle Taiwan on tour buses. Among them is advertising company employee Mung Lee Li(ph). She admits she likes to be among the first to have new things, whether it's an iPhone or a package tour to the latest government-approved destination.

Ms. MUNG LEE LI (Advertising Company Employee): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Taiwan is famous for its beautiful scenery and cuisine, she says. Now that there are direct flights, of course we want to grasp the first opportunity to go look around and experience the place.

Mung thinks that lifestyles on Taiwan and mainland China are pretty much the same. She knows this, she says, from watching Taiwanese soap operas.

Unidentified Woman #2: Ladies and gentlemen, we (unintelligible) for Taipei. It takes about four hours in the flight. (Unintelligible) serve your dinner and drinks soon.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: Folks on both sides of the Taiwan Strait share cultural roots but they've grown apart over the past 60 years. Mainland media and textbooks praise the island's natural scenery but there's little mention of its developed economy or its evolution from a one-party dictatorship into a lively democracy. In fact, Taiwan's experience represents a different take on being Chinese and perhaps even a preview of changes that may one day come to the mainland.

To prepare tourists for their experience, the Beijing government summoned them to a meeting. Sunrise Travel tour leader Jao Xingchiong(ph) says it was not about politics.

Mr. JAO XINGCHIONG (Tour Leader, Sunrise Travel): (Through translator) There are bound to be political differences after being separated for so many years. We just tell the groups that some things over there are different. For example, the mainland uses simplified Chinese characters while Taiwan uses traditional ones.

KUHN: Jao says his personal favorite site in Taipei is the Palace Museum, which contains thousand of artworks from the Forbidden City, home of China's emperors. The nationalist governments took the best of the bunch with them when they fled the mainland in 1949.

Mr. JAO: (Through translator) When I go there I just think Chinese are too brilliant. I often go to the Forbidden City in Beijing. I never imagined there were so many treasures in the Palace Museum.

Unidentified Woman #2: Ladies and gentlemen, we are encountering some turbulence. Pleaseā€¦

KUHN: At first the flights will be limited to 36 round trips each weekend. The Taiwan Straits are still militarily sensitive so the flights will detour through Hong Kong's airspace. Before, flights between the mainland and Taiwan had to physically stop in Hong Kong or Macau. Passenger Lee Kongyen(ph) is a Taiwanese TV scriptwriter who works in Beijing. He says the direct flights will save time for frequent travelers like himself and help to lessen mutual suspicions.

Mr. LEE KONGYEN (Taiwanese TV Scriptwriter): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: For a long time the two sides were on their guard towards each other, he says, and there was little trust between them. I think the flights will bring the two sides closer together. I think it's a good thing.

(Soundbite of music)

KUHN: Lion dancers and television cameras greeted the first passengers in Taipei. The government anticipates that up to 3,000 mainland tourists a day will spend $2 billion and create 40,000 jobs a year for the island. It's a first move in Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's strategy to strengthen economic ties with the mainland. Of course, inviting tourists is a lot easier than addressing political differences.

As for Beijing's goal of reunification with Taiwan, Ma says that he will not even discuss that issue while he's president.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Taipei.

(Soundbite of music)

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