BEIJING – China stepped up pressure on Taiwan on Wednesday as it announced the suspension of individual travel permits to the self-ruled democratic island “due to current cross-strait relations.”
A program had allowed Chinese citizens in 47 mainland cities to apply for permits to visit Taiwan on their own instead of visiting on group tours.
But the tourism ministry said in a brief statement that their issuance would be suspended from Thursday “due to current cross-strait relations” — a move that could hurt the island’s economy.
Taiwan’s foreign minister criticized the suspension, saying Beijing was preventing its people from “experiencing a country where freedom, openness & tolerance are the order of the day.”
In a tweet Wednesday night, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu wrote “How very sad?”
“What’s to fear?” he wrote in a question directed at the Beijing authorities.
Taiwan’s Presidential Office also criticized China’s move, with spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka saying it will “not only restrict mutual understanding between the people of China and Taiwan but also deprive Chinse of the opportunity to know Taiwan.”
Both the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party ruling and the China-friendly opposition Nationalist Party issued statements critical of the ban.
China’s foreign ministry referred questions on the ban to the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, which did not immediately respond.
However, the official China Daily newspaper made it clear the move aimed to damage Taiwan’s economy and steer voters away from re-electing Tsai. The decline in tourism revenues “in turn will send ripples across the island’s ‘presidential election’ that is scheduled for January, as it may prompt the Taiwan people to think about whether it is worthwhile to continue to be bound with a secessionist ‘leader’ on the same ghost ship for another four years,” the paper said.
Citing official statistics, China Daily said the suspension of individual visits would cut the number of Chinese tourist trips to the island by about 700,000 within six months, adding that “may be just the first of a series of moves.”
Overall Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan annually have from fallen from 4.18 million in 2015, the year before Tsai’s election, to about 2.69 million last year, the paper said.
However, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau reported that more than 1.677 million Chinese visited Taiwan in the first half of the year, an increase of 30 percent over the same period last year. They were divided roughly evenly between individuals and those in tour groups.
Joining in blaming Tsai’s administration for worsening ties, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the nationalist Communist Party tabloid Global Times, said patriotic Chinese were prepared to accept the inconvenience.
Tsai’s government has “trampled on cross-strait relations for a considerable time, constantly strengthened their opposition stance against the mainland, and actively acted as a bargaining chip for the United States to suppress mainland China,” Xijin wrote on his official microblog.
China cut off all contact with Tsai’s government shortly after her 2016 election and has discouraged tourism while working to poach away Taiwan’s handful of remaining diplomatic allies and block its participation at international gatherings.
China has also ratcheted up its threat to annex Taiwan by military force, most recently holding war games this week on the mainland coast facing the island. Taiwan responded with two days of drills earlier this week.
Taiwan’s Coast Guard reported a Taiwanese-flagged cargo ship was involved in a minor collision with a Chinese navy ship Wednesday night near the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen, also known as Quemoy.
It said no one was injured and both ships returned to port under their own power. Taiwan’s China Times newspaper identified the Chinese ship as a Type 071 new-generation amphibious transport dock.