Beijing ratcheted up tensions with Taipei this week by scrapping a program that allowed tourists from 47 mainland cities to visit Taiwan, a sign that President Xi's plans to "re-unify" Taiwan with the mainland is continuing amid a wave of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism said in a statement on Wednesday that a ban on solo travelers visiting Taiwan would take effect on Aug. 1, effectively banning all individual leisure travel from mainland China to Taiwan, though business travelers and tour groups from the mainland will still be able to visit the island.
The decision has drawn accusations of political interference from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
According to CNN, the individual visit program was piloted in June 2011 in three cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen. Soon after, it was expanded to include residents of 44 additional cities. It was intended to breed closer ties between the mainland and its 'rogue province'. But last month, Beijing released a new defense policy paper - the first since the beginning of President Xi's second term - where it accused Western powers of interfering with Beijing's relationship with Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Since the beginning of the year, President Xi has amped up his rhetoric about Taiwan, claiming that one of his top priorities is to oversee the reunification that Beijing has always insisted would one day occur. These remarks have incensed President Tsai, who has vowed that the Taiwanese people wouldn't tolerate reunification, while buying billions of dollars of tanks and other military equipment from the US. President Tsai has made her resistance to Beijing the crux of her reelection campaign for a 2020 general election where she is fighting for another term.
Beijing's decision to end the tourism program is likely a direct response to Taiwan's $2.2 billion arms purchase from the US, something that has inspired accusations of western interference from the mainland's government. During a four-day visit to Washington last month, Tsai declared that Taiwan will "firmly defend our democratic system" as Beijing suggested that it could use force to speed up its plans for reunification, while increasing the frequency of live-fire drills in the Strait of Taiwan.
"(Tsai’s) Democratic Progressive Party is continually pushing activities to promote Taiwan’s independence and inciting hostility toward the mainland, seriously undermining the conditions for mainland travelers to visit the island," said Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
"I believe compatriots on both sides of the strait hope relations will return to a correct track of peaceful development, allowing travel by mainland residents to Taiwan to return to normal as soon as possible," Ma said, according to mainland press reports.
According to Reuters, President Tsai rebuked China's decision on Thursday, saying the move was intended to influence the upcoming presidential election. Taiwan saw strong economic growth during the second quarter, something that the island's economist chalked up to an increase in tourists from the mainland.
"Using tourists as political tools would only create antipathy in Taiwanese people," President Tsai told reporters in the presidential palace in Taipei. "Tourism shouldn’t be politicized."
She also said Beijing has used its control over tourism to Taiwan to influence elections in the past.