26 January 2003
The first commercial flight from Taiwan to China in more than 50 years has completed its round-trip journey. The special flights were scheduled to bring Taiwanese people living on the mainland home for the Lunar New Year. The flights are seen as an important step toward establishing regular, direct air links between China and Taiwan.
Under a groundbreaking private sector arrangement, Sunday's flight was one of 16 round-trip charter flights between Taipei and Shanghai that will bring Taiwanese business people home to their relatives and friends for the holiday.
Taiwan and China never established direct travel links after the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949. Taiwan banned direct flights, citing security concerns.
Travelers between Taiwan and the mainland must go through either Hong Kong or Macau, and Taipei also insists on a plane change, which adds an extra hour to the flight time.
Sunday's flight - and all the other special flights - are required to touch down in Hong Kong, but passengers do not have to change planes, and get to Taipei in four hours instead of the usual five.
The issue of direct air travel between Taiwan and mainland China is practical as well as symbolic. Taiwan has invested billions of dollars in the mainland, and an estimated one million Taiwanese people live there. At peak travel times, not enough airplane seats are available to carry the Taiwanese back to their island home.
This is an irritant between Taiwan and its business community, which has long called for direct air links.
Taiwan's president has pledged to improve ties with China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan.
The push to set up these special flights came from a legislator named John Chang, who is the grandson of the late Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the defeated Nationalist forces driven from the mainland in 1949.
In a recent speech to Taiwan's foreign business community, Mr. Chang said he would push for similar flights for other Chinese holidays.
His initiative has put Taiwan's current government under pressure to engage in talks with Beijing, which has long called for a normalization of air links.
As Taiwan's economy continues to falter, and China's to prosper, Taiwan's leaders insist they are ready to talk to their mainland counterparts. But they are still searching for ways to initiate talks, without appearing to give in to Beijing's claim of sovereignty over the island.