Liz Carter senior contributor

With U.S. Opening Doors to Taiwanese Wider, Mainland Chinese Ponder “the Greatest Distance on Earth”

A scene from Taiwan's Jhushu Mountain. By Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons

Taiwan has now joined the U.S. visa waiver program. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security officially announced on October 2 that beginning December 1, Taiwanese may travel to the U.S. and stay there for 90 days without a visa. But Chinese netizens had mixed reactions to the news since, as the Washington Post succinctly noted, visa waiver status “is not a privilege enjoyed by China.”

The phrase “Taiwan Visa Exemption” was still trending on Sina Weibo today. Weibo user @假装在纽约, whose comment contrasting the forced abortion of Feng Jianmei with Taikonaut Liu Yang’s journey to space went viral earlier this year, weighed in on the announcement of Taiwan’s visa waiver status in a post which was retweeted over 27,000 times in less than 24 hours. It read:

“The greatest distance on earth is that I celebrate national day on October 1, and you celebrate it on October 10. The greatest distance on earth is that, carrying my dark red passport, it is so difficult for me to obtain a visa, yet you can travel to over 120 countries effortlessly with your dark green passport. The greatest distance on earth is that we speak the same language, but have different expressions, different joys and different sorrows, different fates. {{1}}[[1]][Chinese: 世界上最遥远的距离,是我在10月1日过国庆,而你在10月10日过国庆。世界上最遥远的距离,是我拿着我的暗红色护照本,为了一个签证历尽艰辛;而你拿着你的墨绿色护照,120多国畅通无阻。世界上最遥远的距离,是我们说着一样的语言,却有不一样的表情,不一样的悲喜,不一样的命运。[[1]]

“This is not the first time mainland Chinese netizens have compared the difficulties they have travelling with a PRC passport to the ease with which Taiwanese can circle the globe, but the U.S.’s decision to extend visa-waiver status to Taiwan was a particularly hot topic, in part because China’s sovereignty issues have been at center stage of late, and the People’s Republic of China claims the Republic of China [Taiwan] as its own.”

Many mainland Chinese would like to get their hands on one of these. By SJ32 via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the citizens of the two countries–or areas, if you take the Party line–carry different passports, which are required for travel even between China and Taiwan. Claims of sovereignty often have little to do with actual military control of an area. Both South Korea and Japan claim the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, while China, Japan, and Taiwan all claim the Diaoyu/ Senkaku/ Tiaoyutais. China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all claim the Spratlys. According to one netizen, Taiwan’s Premier, Sean Chen, has claimed that Shanghai belongs to the Republic of China (Taiwan). “Wo cao,” the netizen remarked, “Shanghai has been a visa-exempt area all along!”

Instead of laughing, some netizens lamented that the Chinese passport was itself a joke. Another said, “I wait for the day that it won’t be rare for a Chinese to visit the US.” While some called the restrictions on mainland Chinese citizens discriminatory, not all took this view. Blogger Wen Yunchao tweeted:

“Chinese people wouldn’t get much use out of this visa exemption thing anyway. You can get a visa upon landing in Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam: Buy a plane ticket and just go; take your passport and see if they let you out of the country. [China’s so-called visa exemptions only apply to diplomatic passports.]

“China has visa waiver agreements with so few countries because it usually goes both ways, and China wants to control the outflow of its own people, on the one hand, and fears that enemy forces will enter the country on the other, so the only thing it can do is restrict mutual visa exemption agreements.” {{2}}[[2]]免签证这玩意,目前给了国人也没多大用,泰国印尼越南落地签啊,你买张机票直接去,拿着护照看让不让你出境。中国免签证国家那么少,是因为鉴证安排一般是对等的待遇,中国一方面怕自己的民众出去,又怕敌对势力进来,只好限制签证互利安排。[[2]]

Citizens of the People’s Republic are well aware of the differences between the Party line and reality, yet most hold the view that Taiwan is a province rather than a country and would prefer that Taiwanese believe the same. However, the announcement of Taiwan’s visa-waiver status did not incite online nationalism, focusing instead on the quality of life that Taiwanese appeared to enjoy.

Indeed, nationalistic fervor has not caused Chinese to forget the demands they’ve made of their government. While Chinese have protested nationwide against Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Diaoyu Islands, an online poll revealed that if Chinese respondents’ children were born in the disputed territory, they would rather the children have Taiwanese or even Japanese citizenship instead of a PRC passport. Taiwan’s per-capita GDP is far higher than China’s, and Taiwan is ranked #45 in the Press Freedom Index–narrowly edging out the U.S., and blowing China–at #174–out of the water.

Nationalism, the “cheap liquor” spoken of by heralded Japanese author Haruki Murakami in a recent essay, may inflame, but the fervor passes. Chinese netizens commenting on Taiwan’s visa-waiver status spoke mainly of their desire for China to be as economically developed, politically free, and internationally respected as Taiwan. Mainland netizens focused on those aspects of Taiwan that the PRC could emulate, another effort to bring both sides of the straits closer together through reform and development rather than force. Ultimately, real policy changes that make life easier for citizens resonate in a way that abstract ideas do not.

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.