MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And Im Robert Siegel.
President Obamas tour of Asia comes at a time of change in one of the regions most volatile relationships. China and Taiwan, a long-time U.S. ally, have been at odds for more than half a century. Now the two countries are enjoying their warmest relations in years.
And NPRs Frank Langfitt found on a trip to Taiwan, some people there are worried. They say China is trying to do with money what it failed to do with missiles and threats.
FRANK LANGFITT: China has viewed Taiwan as a renegade province since the days of the Chinese civil war. In the mid 1990s, Beijing was so angry with Taiwan for flirting with formal independence, it fired missiles towards the island during an election campaign. Taiwanese responded by giving the pro-independence candidate a clear majority.
In the past decade, though, Taiwans economy has struggled and the country has lost much of its swagger. After years of resistance, the government has decided to increase economic ties with China. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou says he had no choice.
President MA YING-JEOU (Taiwan): As mainland China is rapidly becoming the second largest economy of the world, obviously we cannot avoid doing business with the mainland.
LANGFITT: Ma approved direct flights to China last year. His government is also working on agreements that would cut tariffs for Taiwanese products and could open the door to more Chinese investment. President Ma insists none of this will affect Taiwans status as an independent country in all but name.
Pres. MA: There has always been risk in dealing with mainland China, but there has always been opportunities as well. So my job as the president of this country is to maximize opportunity and minimize the risk.
LANGFITT: Joseph Wu served as Taiwans de facto ambassador to the United States in 2007.
Mr. JOSEPH WU (Former Taiwan Ambassador to the United States): If Taiwan cannot separate itself from the Chinese economy, talking about political separation is going to be hard.
LANGFITT: Wu is also a member of Taiwans Democratic Progressive Party, which opposes the current opening to China. The United States has protected Taiwan for decades. And Wu says Americans have a vested interest in the islands fate.
Mr. WU: We hold the same value of freedom and human rights and democracy with the Americans and any damage to Taiwans democracy or that Taiwan is to be sucked into that authoritarian country, the United States should be concerned about that.
LANGFITT: Those arguments, though, seem to make little impression on Taiwanese business people. Most applaud President Mas policies. Yancey Hai is CEO of Delta Electronics, which makes everything from cooling fans to digital projectors. Until last year, he had to spend an entire day flying from Taiwan to Shanghai. Thats because for political reasons. The Taiwanese government insisted travelers switch planes in Hong Kong. Hai says the direct flights are vastly more efficient.
Mr. YANCEY HAI (CEO, Delta Electronics): When I fly to Shanghai, it take me about 90 minutes. So, I can go to Shanghai in the morning and come back in the evening.
LANGFITT: Hai says warmer economic relations are also creating business opportunities.
Mr. HAI: One of their biggest appliances company came to us from China yesterday. And in the past we never talk about business.
LANGFITT: Why would they never come to see you before?
Mr. HAI: In the past I think its because of the restrictions both psychologically and physically.
LANGFITT: Some young people support President Mas policies because they see their future in China, not Taiwan.
(Soundbite of music and tapping)
LANGFITT: Its a Friday night at Taiwans National Politics University. Students are practicing tap dancing outside. Wang Junhong is a finance major. Taiwans government just signed a banking agreement with China, and Wang hopes that will make it easier for him to find work in a bank in Shanghai.
Mr. WANG JUNHONG: Shanghai is financial center of China. So, I guess there will be much more opportunity to get a good job or get a higher, you know, wage.
(Soundbite of music)
LANGFITT: But where Wang sees opportunity, Anya Liu sees threats. Shes sitting nearby playing guitar. Liu worries the presidents opening to China will usher in a flood of mainlanders who will take the best jobs.
Ms. ANYA LIU: (Through Translator) Im really against it. The population is just too big and theyre too capable. Theres nothing we can do about it.
LANGFITT: Liu also thinks Taiwans leaders are playing into Beijings hands.
Ms. LIU: (Through Translator) The Ma government is too close to China. It ignores the interest of all the Taiwanese people. So, in the end, all our political sovereignty will be obliterated.
LANGFITT: Leticia Fang is an associate professor of journalism at the school. She says Chinas economic power is beginning to influence her profession. The Dalai Lama, Tibets spiritual leader, came to Taiwan earlier this fall to pray for victims of a typhoon. China, which calls the Dalai Lama a separatist, criticized Taiwan for letting him in. Fang says when a Taiwanese TV anchor appeared as a guest on Chinas state-run television, she also criticized the Dalai Lama. A few years ago, Fang says, that wouldve never happened.
Professor LETICIA FANG (Journalism, Taiwans National Politics University): Media people - some media people, they are just sucking up.
LANGFITT: As you watch this occur, whats your greatest fear?
Prof. FANG: Well, media should be the window to the whole world. But instead of being the window to the whole world, its the its only advocate for China.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. FONG: So, yeah, we lost that cultural autonomy.
LANGFITT: The Dalai Lamas visit has played out in other revealing ways, as well.
(Soundbite of waves)
LANGFITT: Im standing here in Kaohsiung. Its a tourist town in southern Taiwan and just across the water is mainland China. Back in September, the Dalai Lama came here and the Chinese government was so angry, it took revenge on local business people. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party told government tour groups they couldnt even spend a night in Kaohsiung.
(Soundbite of waves)
LANGFITT: C.S. Chung is assistant general manager at the Hotel Kingdom here. He says the ban cost him 1,200 room bookings. Chung and other tourism leaders complained to local officials about their embrace of the Dalai Lama. Chung says he made his position clear.
Mr. C.S. Chung (Assistant General Manager, Hotel Kingdom): (Through Translator) I really hope the government wont do anything that would fury mainland and cause it to boycott our tourism.
LANGFITT: As President Ma tries to forge economic agreements with China, he insists it wont affect Taiwans autonomy.
Pres. MA: Of course we are very much concerned about our sovereignty, our identity. So, in every agreement we sign with the Chinese mainland, you could read between lines. Theres no political words in that.
LANGFITT: But as the Dalai Lamas visit shows, separating politics and economics across the Taiwan strait is getting harder and harder.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.