TAIPEI, TAIWAN, SEPT. 19 -- In the most dramatic in a series of liberalizing moves, Taiwan has decided to lift a 38-year-old ban against travel to China, according to senior officials here.
The Nationalist Chinese officials who rule this island said the only people who would not be allowed to visit the People's Republic of China for family reunions would be military personnel and government officials.
The officials insisted that the main purpose would be humanitarian, to allow hundreds of thousands of Chinese who fled to this island following the Communist victory on the mainland in 1949 to visit their old homes and relatives there.
But they also asserted that the lifting of the travel ban, which is expected to be announced formally within the next few days, will have the side effect of putting Taiwan on the political offensive against the Communist rulers in Beijing for the first time in decades.
"For so long they've been trying to push us around," said Shaw Yu-ming, director of Taiwan's government information office. "We now want to call the shots. We're going to show that we don't fear them any more."
"The battle between the two sides now is over the hearts and minds of the people," Shaw said in an interview.
"If we allow our people to go to the mainland, they can bring tidings of democracy and freedom to the mainland. But I want to emphasize that the fundamental reason for this decision is humanitarian," he said.
Taiwan has asked the International Red Cross to help arrange visits by its citizens to the mainland.
In China, the Communist Party press has welcomed reports that Taiwan will end the travel ban, but the official magazine Beijing Review called for much stronger measures aimed at "reunification" of the two sides, which are still technically at war.
Analysts in Taiwan said China is likely at some point to ask for the right to send scholars, journalists and tourists to Taiwan. But Shaw Yu-ming said that Taiwan would refuse this.
"If they sent a million tourists to Taiwan, we'd be inundated," said Shaw.
Shaw and another senior official interviewed here said that the lifting of the travel ban does not mean an end to Taiwan's longstanding ban against contact, negotiation or compromise with the government in Beijing, which is still viewed as an "enemy" regime, Shaw said.
But many analysts in the Taiwan press and universities have interpreted the lifting of the travel ban as part of a broader opening to China, the first in nearly four decades.
Some even said it could be the beginning of a process that would lead to an accommodation between Taiwan and Beijing, once the current generation of leaders on both sides has passed from the scene.
Some analysts said the projected family reunions could easily expand into other areas such as sightseeing and academic exchanges.
They also said the visits could lead to substantial growth in the indirect trade between Taiwan and the mainland. Western analysts in Hong Kong said the value of this two-way trade, which passes mostly through Hong Kong, has reached nearly $2 billion a year.
Taiwan's decision to lift the ban on mainland visits appears to be based on a combination of calculations and pressures. The main calculation is that Taiwan, with more than 10 times the per capita income of China, has the self-confidence to deal with its much larger neighbor and even gain something from such contacts.
The pressure for change has come from middle-class legislators who want more pragmatic policies, from businessmen who seek more trade with China and from aging Nationalist Army veterans who have long wanted to return to the mainland to see the relatives they left behind at the end of the civil war between the Nationalists, or Kuomingtang, and the Communists.
Taiwan officials said thousands of visitors from Taiwan who have already traveled to the mainland on unauthorized trips were not moved by Communist propaganda, because they were unimpressed with what they saw there.
Now, Shaw said, the Nationalists believe that their citizens, while visiting China, will "win hearts" for Taiwan and possibly force the Beijing government to try to imitate Taiwan's economic success.
"The people of Taiwan are gradually losing their siege mentality," said a foreign diplomat based in Hong Kong recently. "I think they've come to realize the power of money."
The decision to lift the ban on visits to China, which would have been beyond imagining not long ago, appears to be widely welcomed on Taiwan.
The decision, which has been signaled by a number of government statements, already has caused many people to begin planning trips to China. A tourist agency already has said it would be able to arrange a one-week trip through several cities for $1,000.
A local television manufacturer announced that he will introduce a new line of inexpensive color sets for travelers to take to their relatives in China.
Several journalists said they are planning to apply to cover the Communist Party congress in Beijing next month.
But Ma Ying-jeou, deputy secretary general of the Kuomintang, said the euphoria in some circles over the visits is misguided. He said prospects for visits other than for family reunions are "very remote."
The government does not sanction journalistic trips to the mainland, but two reporters flew to China earlier this week in anticipation of the lifting of the travel ban.
The two said they wanted to report on conditions on the mainland so that when the ban is lifted, visitors from Taiwan will know what to expect and how to prepare for their trips.
A government official said the two journalists would be punished, but no one expects the punishment to be severe.
Just a few weeks ago, under Taiwan's martial law decrees, the two journalists might have faced prison sentences for reporting from China. But the Nationalist government lifted martial law in mid-July, making it likely that the most severe punishment would be a denial of their travel rights for two years.