washingtonpost.com
Despite a government standoff, people of China and Taiwan increasingly mingle

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A14

SHANGHAI - China considers Taiwan a renegade province and keeps more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island. Taiwan stockpiles American weapons to defend itself. And the standoff remains the longest-running irritant in Washington's relations with Beijing.

But the unresolved rivalry across the narrow Taiwan Strait masks a different reality on the ground. In many ways -- economics, culture, family ties -- China and Taiwan are rapidly becoming closely intertwined, making the chances of a military confrontation seem increasingly remote.

More than a million Taiwanese now live in China full time -- about half of them in the Shanghai area -- running factories, starting restaurants, attending universities, buying property.

There are 270 regularly scheduled flights each week between Chinese and Taiwanese cities, and they are almost always fully booked. The number of weekly flights is set to grow to more than 400 in a few weeks.

Many Taiwanese living in China are too young to have known China as a hostile neighbor; rather, they see a vast marketplace.

"I could see it was happening around me, people were moving to China," said Tingting Yang, 39, who came to Shanghai from Taipei seven years ago and runs a public relations company. "They don't need to do anything militarily. Taiwan is already close to China. And getting closer."

Taiwanese in China are also building personal ties, getting married and having children.

"I think it's weird I ended up with a Chinese guy," said Chiang Chun-mei, 38, whose father fled China with the Nationalist Kuomintang army in 1949. She came to China to work in the hotel business, got married and is expecting her first child. "Both of us have to compromise a lot," she said. "Now he has to watch Taiwanese news with me every day."

Taiwanese men speak of the irony of being taught during military service to see China as the enemy. "We were trained to land in China on a marine landing craft with rifles and tanks," said Martin Liou, 51, who was an officer in the Taiwanese army and later set up Amway's warehouse and factory network in China. "Instead of a rifle, I came with a briefcase."

Taiwanese culture has also invaded mainland China, from soap operas to the accent and slang being mimicked by teenage girls in Shanghai.

The wave goes the other way, as well, though it is more limited. Chinese are increasingly traveling as tourists to Taiwan -- 800,000 of them so far this year. For now, they must go with organized tours, but later this year, the rules will allow individual travel.

Liou, Amway's vice president for Greater China, last year organized the largest group of Chinese to visit Taiwan -- and the first ship to sail directly between the two sides in 60 years -- when he took 10,000 Chinese Amway distributors and their families on a week-long cruise to the island.

"The two governments have their political concerns, their sense of pride," Liou said. "But we regular people, we want to make friends, make money, we want to see each other."

"If China leaves Taiwan alone, if they are patient, sooner or later, it's going to be unified," he said.

Business links

Kunshan City, in Jiangsu province, a 20-minute ride on the bullet train from Shanghai, is now home to so many Taiwanese businesses that it has been nicknamed "Little Taipei," after Taiwan's capital. Its Yellow River Main Street is lined with Taiwanese restaurants and fast-food joints, offering dumplings, noodles, milk tea and fresh fruits from the island.

"I call myself a new immigrant," said Jenny Zhan Guifen, a former fashion designer and organic farmer who moved to China with her children five years ago after a divorce. She now runs the Dream Herb cafe, a Kunshan gathering spot for Taiwanese.

The influx has made Kunshan one of China's most prosperous cities, with the Taiwanese-owned factories turning out Dell laptops, digital cameras and iPods. But it wasn't always so.

When Huang Jian-zhong first came in 1999, moving his food-additive manufacturing company from Guangdong province in the south, Kunshan was a rural backwater to cosmopolitan Shanghai, he recalled. "When I came here, my neighbor was a pig farm," he said, looking out his office window at new high-rise apartments and sprawling factories.

But the Kunshan government courted mid-size Taiwanese businesses, offering incentives and cutting red tape when glitzier Shanghai was more interested in attracting big international firms. "Shanghai didn't attach enough importance to Taiwanese businesses," said Huang, 52, who is also deputy head of the local Taiwan Business Association.

Word spread among the Taiwanese business community, and today about 4,000 Taiwanese firms are based in Kunshan, constituting 70 percent of the local economy. An estimated 100,000 Taiwanese live in Kunshan.

Huang says he is a proud member of Taiwan's Kuomintang (KMT), the party of Chiang Kai-shek, who fled with his forces to Taiwan in 1949. But as a prominent businessman, Huang now meets with Kunshan officials.

"I ask myself, as a KMT member, what am I doing here attending Communist Party meetings?" Huang joked.

Family ties

While serving his mandatory tour in the Taiwanese army, Ting Chang-sing was based on Kinmen island, Taiwan's closest island outpost to the Chinese mainland. It was a time of tension across the strait, with China staging missile tests to intimidate the island.

"You could see the PLA soldiers smoking and napping," Ting, now 36, recalled. "When I saw the PLA soldiers on the mainland, my eyes were filled with anger."

After he finished his military service, in the late 1990s, Ting found his first job as a consultant for Taiwanese businesses looking for a toehold in the Chinese market. Ting recalled being surprised when he first arrived, after being fed Taiwanese government propaganda about the terrible conditions in China.

"It was not as backwards as the propaganda said," Ting recalled. "I pretty much felt at home."

Ting enrolled in graduate school at Fudan University. He earned a doctorate in international relations but is not allowed to teach in China because he is Taiwanese. So he spends his days studying to take the exam to be a lawyer.

He also met his wife at Fudan. Zhou Shun, 28, said her family, almost all of them Communist Party members, worried when they learned her boyfriend was Taiwanese. The biggest concern, she said, was if they married, she might not be able to get a government job.

The two now have a 4-month-old son, and plan to stay.

Ting has found another irony to his decision to settle in China. His grandfather was a pilot in the Kuomintang air force and used to bomb Communist positions from an air base outside Shanghai. The old base has been replaced by a complex of high-rise apartments. Ting and his wife, not knowing the history, bought one of the apartments, where they now live.

"This is exactly the place where my grandfather served," he said. "I believe there is something connecting me back to Shanghai."

Researcher Wang Juan contributed to this report.

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