A chartered jet operated by Taiwan's national airline landed here this morning to pick up passengers and fly them home across the Taiwan Strait for Chinese New Year, transcending a geographic and symbolic divide that has separated the self-governing island from mainland China for more than half a century.
It was the first time a Taiwanese carrier had landed in mainland China since 1949, when Mao Tse-tung's Communist Army conquered Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces and sent them fleeing to Taiwan, where they established a government in exile.
So much has happened since, not least a growing economic integration that has seen Taiwanese businesses plow as much as $100 billion into ventures on the mainland. An estimated 500,000 Taiwanese now live in mainland China. But the political division has remained: Taiwan clings to its status as a self-governing territory, while China insists that the island is part of its domain, often threatening to reclaim it by force.
Today's charter flights, the first of 16 scheduled to run through Feb. 9 , were hailed by authorities on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as a small but significant advance. They amount to a token first step toward the establishment of the "three links" of direct trade, transport and postal ties, which have been severed since 1949. Reestablishing those links has long been an official goal of both China and Taiwan.
"The flights can improve the cross-strait relationship," Chen Ming-tong, vice chairman of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees relations with China, said in a telephone interview from Taipei. "We hope we can use this experience to learn how to handle the relationship."
Still, the special New Year flights seem unlikely to lead to the establishment of direct air links anytime soon, because the agendas of the two governments now pull in opposite directions.
China has embraced economic integration as the best way to press for reunification by creating advocates for that outcome among Taiwanese businesspeople. It has dropped its former demands that the establishment of the three links requires that Taiwan first acknowledge that it is part of China, a formulation reiterated last week by China's top foreign policy official, Qian Qichen.
But Taiwan's government remains suspicious of Beijing's intentions and concerned that regular air links across the strait could hollow out the island's economy.
"We worry that if we have three links, then the investment will rush across the Taiwan Strait," a senior Taiwan government official said last fall. "Basically, not having direct flights is a brake. If we open direct flights, that means the government is sponsoring investment in China. It means we depend on China. It means we disarm ourselves, open up our airspace."
"Beijing threatens Taiwan every day," the official said. "How can we just open our door?"
This morning, the door opened a crack, and it was treated here as a very big deal.
The first plane to make the trip, a China Airlines 747 bound for Taipei, landed at Pudong International Airport with fanfare worthy of a returning space voyager. The jet was assigned an apron normally reserved for visiting heads of state. The plane arrived at 8:51 a.m., nine minutes ahead of schedule.
In Taiwan, a media frenzy has probed every detail of the flights, from the crews onboard -- one of the six carriers involved, Far Eastern Air Transport, said its inaugural flight would be staffed by flight attendants once hijacked to the mainland -- to how captains who have never landed in Shanghai trained on its geography using flight simulators.
Still, for an event billed as a milestone, much of what happened today was remarkably unexceptional.
As with planes that fly existing routes, the charter flights cannot fly directly to Taiwan but must touch down in Hong Kong or Macau before continuing on. The flights are only open to Taiwanese returning home for the holiday. The cheapest tickets cost about $450 round-trip, only about 20 percent less than the regular fare. A China Airlines spokesman said Saturday that only about 200 of the 370 seats on today's inaugural flight had been sold. The only substantive change was that the jets originated in Taiwan and were operated by carriers based there.
Nevertheless, how the flights came about showed new flexibility on both sides of the strait. As China and Taiwan swapped conditions last year for talks on forging direct air links, Beijing at first insisted the talks be treated as a domestic dialogue. Taiwan rejected that as tantamount to forcing it to recognize China's authority, an unacceptable compromise of its sovereignty. China then suggested that Taiwan could be represented by private businesspeople. Taiwan asserted that no deal could be completed without government involvement.
Amid the stalemate, the New Year charter flights emerged as a baby step forward. Both sides agreed that the Taiwan carriers could simply apply to China's government for permission to operate the flights, thus tiptoeing around the well-staked-out positions on the formal terms of engagement. Still, Taiwan insisted that the flights travel by way of a third port, citing security concerns. That requirement has been criticized by China.
While direct flights would connect Shanghai to Taipei in as little as two hours, the trip now takes about six hours.
"It increases costs, wastes time and undermines the whole point of the charter flights," Li Weiyi, a spokesman for the Taiwan office of China's State Council, said at a press conference last week in Beijing.
Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, has been hearing increasing criticism from the island's key business leaders for his unwillingness to compromise further to establish direct air links.
J.T. Wang, president of Acer Inc., the Taiwan-based computer giant, suggested in an interview last fall that if direct flights were not established soon, he could be forced to shift more personnel to the mainland to support his manufacturing there and lessen Acer's presence in Taiwan.
Acer has been shifting production to southern China, where labor costs are far lower. The company now employs 250 people on the mainland and 1,800 in Taiwan.
"If you continually block [direct flights], then the feeling is that mainland China is so far away that it's impossible to support China operations, to dispatch staff from Taipei," he said.
Staff writer Philip P. Pan in Beijing contributed to this report.