Cycling Taiwan's lovely east coast drives home the complexities of Taiwan's interaction with China.
In Dulan in Taitung I stayed overnight at a backpacker's hostel. Dulan used to be a sleepy, cheap overnight a decade ago. It is now a stop on the "banana pancake circuit", where backpackers of all nations gather to compare dreadlock lengths and swap sarong wrapping methods.
The owner of the hostel explained that they weren't entirely legal. "It's difficult to get a license here, the government is reluctant to give them out. So I just say I am having a few friends stay." Why was there a problem? He said that the big hotels are putting pressure on the government to limit B&Bs.
The boom in hotels in Taitung, of course, occurred partly as a result of the China tourism trade. Further north a friend of mine who just wants to build a farmhouse faced delay after delay.
Word had it that approvals on all new construction of homes were put on hold because big hotels feared owners would turn them into B&Bs. My friend got revenge, though: he is putting in a campground.
Taiwan's East Coast (Photo by Michael A. Turton)
With the Chinese group tourists mercifully gone, the population of buses has plummeted and the coast roads are once again a pleasure to ride. I was in Chenggong digesting lunch, still a nondescript fishing port, when a tour bus parked and disgorged a group of English speaking tourists.
Chinese tourists had ignored Chenggong, but to the Australian couple I chatted with it was an interesting, exotic place full of possibilities. The absence of Chinese group tourists means the presence of new, more diverse tourists eager for experiences.
In Donghe earlier that morning having the obligatory steamed buns we met a couple from Fujian biking the coast. They were friendly and likable and eager to see new places, so long as no hill climbing was involved (that is actually a problem in Taiwan). They represented another upside of the death of group tourism from China: individual tourists will become more prominent.
This is a good thing for all involved. I have met many such tourists and interactions with them are always pleasant, with the possibility of meaningful exchanges that will allow Taiwan to work its magic.
The red bridge at Dagangkou (Photo by Michael A. Turton)
At the train station in I spoke to a vivacious young social worker turned entrepreneur. She had left the rat race in Taipei for the lazy pace of a small east coast town.
Her B&B was set up with classrooms for teachers in her field to conduct field courses. These courses will certainly include Chinese students, since so many are studying in universities in Taiwan.
These students will also include a different and equally important Chinese population: ethnic Chinese from Malaysia and Indonesia. I nearly always have several of them in my classes and they are invariably special people. We urgently need to reach them.
That population is increasingly subject to the flow of propaganda emanating from Beijing as Chinese language newspapers come under its influence. Worse, the KMT's propaganda in that area has reinforced Beijing's positions on Taiwan and its other expansionist territorial claims.
Above Tawu at about 700 meters (Photo by Michael A. Turton)
In Malaysia three weeks ago I had dinner with family of one of my students. The father, himself a Chinese from south China whose family had been in Malaysia several generations, explained to me over amazing Chinese food that Taiwanese were "brainwashed" and didn't know who they were. He also came out with the standard barrage of criticisms of Lee Teng-hui.
I was in Malaysia to eat rotis, not argue about politics, and hadn't prompted him. That ordinary local Chinese can come out with such nonsense shows that the Tsai Administration's Southbound policy needs a very strong push to counteract that.
One way to do that is to increase the student population from those nations, both Chinese and other. The Indian population in Malaysia, for example, maintains regular links with its home regions in India. A Taiwan interested in building links to India should also be targeting the Indian diaspora.
Another way, of course, is tourism aimed at that population. We have a growing population of Indians in Taiwan who can help develop links. Taiwan already gets a steady flow of ethnic Chinese cycling tourists from Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Can you imagine groups of adventure tourists from Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan, all mingling on the beaches and in the hills of Taiwan? Coming to understand Taiwan better, as itself and not China?
After all, those nations have one thing in common: they all face Chinese expansionism.
Use your secret weapon, Taiwan.