Taiwan-China Cruise Back On Course

About 500 Taiwanese left the tiny island of Matsu and set sail for China today, the first legal direct voyage to the mainland in more than five decades.

The trip came a day after another Taiwanese boat failed in its effort to inaugurate Taiwan’s relaxation of a ban on direct shipping between two outlying islands and China.

Many hope easing restrictions on the travel will help bring peace between the rivals, who split amid civil war in 1949.

The passengers on the boat that left Matsu, just off the coast of China, are worshippers of the goddess Matsu, the patron of fishermen popular in Taiwan and southeastern China.

First Aborted Mission

Earlier, another group tried to leave from Kinmen, another Taiwanese island off the coast of China. Matsu and Kinmen are the only parts of Taiwan that are opening the direct trading and shipping links with China.

Gusty winds and high waves forced the other boat from reaching its destination, the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen. Another boat plans to leave Kinmen on Tuesday carrying a delegation led by Kinmen County Commissioner Chen Shui-tsai.

Those boarding the boat in Matsu said they were thrilled to be testing Taiwan’s new policy.

“I got up at 2 a.m. for this trip. I want to see my relatives and I want to see China,” said Chen Pao-chu, 60, a pharmacist.

Direct Traffic in Future?

China once pounded heavily fortified Kinmen and Matsu with tens of thousands of artillery shells in the 1950s. The artillery barrages ended years ago, and now people on both sides engage in a bustling illegal trade in seafood, produce and consumer goods. Taiwan’s relaxation of the ban on direct links essentially decriminalizes the smuggling.

If all goes well, the government has said it will make an even bigger move: opening direct air and shipping traffic between China and the main island of Taiwan. The two territories are separated by the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.

Now, Taiwanese who do business in China—Taiwan’s No. 2 market for trade and investment—can’t travel or ship their goods directly to the mainland.

They must go through Hong Kong, Macau or another third port, creating great inconvenience and expense. Many believe opening such links would create one of the world’s strongest trading zones.

Crucial Negotiations

Before such links can happen, the two sides will have to hold high-level negotiations—something they don’t seem ready to do soon. Taiwan opened the links between its two small islands and China without talking to Beijing, which has grudgingly accepted the move but hasn’t said how much it will cooperate.

The first ill-fated first voyage did not have official permission from China to sail, though it completed the lengthy application process with the Taiwanese government. The tour’s organizer, Chen Chin-liang, said had received assurances from Chinese officials.

When the tourist boat cruised back to Kinmen shortly after leaving, there were immediate suspicions that China had warned the vessel not to sail.

Conspiracy Theories Sink

Taiwanese media spent the rest of the day reporting unconfirmed rumors and conspiracy theories about authorities on both sides trying to undermine the trip.

But the ship’s captain, Hong Ya-di, insisted rough water and high winds forced the boat to return.

“I’m the captain and I had the power to make the decision,” said Hong, who plans to sail again on Jan. 8 after the required paperwork is completed.

Choppy water shouldn’t be a major concern for the boats taking off Tuesday, said Chen, the Kinmen County commissioner. He said that the 200-ton boat that he will take would be able to sail in the same conditions. The Matsu pilgrims will use a vessel of about the same size.

Chen is also confident politics won’t stop his trip. He said he has already received permission from Xiamen authorities. Originally, he planned to sail Monday, but Chinese officials asked him to delay the trip a day.