Taipei, Taiwan – Trying not to lose any of the Chinese tourists she is gathering outside the Taiwanese capital’s iconic skyscraper Taipei 101, tour guide Ku Su-zhi holds up a pointer with a little blue flag in order to make herself conspicuous in the Sunday afternoon crush. Every now and then, she feistily tells off a handful of Falun Gong activists trying to approach members of her group.
In a bid to shift from reliance on the export industry, Taiwan opened its doors to free-spending tourists from its rival China in 2008. Now, nearly three million Chinese come annually, generating handsome revenues for restaurants, hotels and shops.
But all along the Falun Gong movement, a religious sect persecuted in China but respected in Taiwan, has been following the Chinese tour groups at every turn, exposing them to graphic pictures of torture victims and organ harvesting. The Chinese tourists tend not to react to this, presumably because decades of autocracy at home have taught them to stay clear of politics.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s tour guides have been finding it difficult to handle the awkward situations. “Yes, we do have freedom of speech in Taiwan, but the Falun Gong people are really over the top,” Ku tells Al Jazeera. “As a tour guide I must protect my clients, so that they leave me no choice but to chase them off.”
She adds that some younger female tourists get scared when approached by the Falun Gong, and that visitors from northern China easily feel offended, “as they are more fond of the Communist Party”.
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Chinese citizens who travel to Taiwan typically make their bookings with Chinese travel agencies, which then subcontract the sightseeing tours to Taiwanese enterprises.
According to Flora Chang, a Falun Gong representative and professor of journalism at the prestigious National Taiwan University, this makes the Taiwanese tour guides susceptible to blackmail by the Chinese Communist Party.
“These guides have two motivations to drive a wedge between the tourists and the Falun Gong,” she says. “The first one is that the Chinese could land themselves in big trouble if they bring the brochures back to China, but the second one is that the Chinese communists warn them not to let the Falun Gong impact the people’s minds.”
And Tony Kung, a Falun Gong activist, puts the allegations in concrete terms. “If the communist agents who are secretly embedded in those tour groups report back that a certain tour guide hasn’t kept us at bay, the Taiwanese travel agency employing him loses its lucrative subcontract with the Chinese,” he says.
Falun Gong complaints
Apart from the tour guides’ practice of shielding the tourists from the Falun Gong and occasionally taking away their flyers, other clues point at their closeness to the Chinese Communist Party. According to Chang, the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau has long been bombarded with tour guides’ complaint letters regarding the Falun Gong, causing the bureau to issue a directive last October ordering Taiwan’s local governments to remove Falun Gong banners and billboards at tourist attractions.
“But, of course that is illegal in our free political system,” Chang says. “We made it very clear with the authorities that they cannot prohibit the Chinese tourists from looking at the Falun Gong material, and the Tourism Bureau indeed quickly backtracked and apologised.”
Still, according to a tour guide who wished not to be named, a Tourism Bureau-sponsored video is still shown to virtually all Chinese tour groups upon their arrival in Taiwan, advising them to stay away from the Falun Gong during their trip.
Meanwhile, at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a landmark swamped with hundreds of Chinese tour groups every day, a lone Falun Gong activist named Fan Jong-qin occupies about 15 square metres of public space with a carpet, billboards, petition-signing table and garden parasol.
There are no other activists, hawkers or commercial promotions at the massive downtown site, about as big as 20 football fields. Although someone doing what Fan does would normally face stiff administrative fines in Taiwan, he tells Al Jazeera that “police let [him] alone even though Taiwan’s pro-China unification political party presses one legal complaint after another”.
An incident last July may be part of the explanation. Back then, three US congressmen – Frank Wolf, Dana Rohrabacher and Christopher Smith – penned high-profile protest letters to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, blasting his government’s plan to tear down Taiwan-based shortwave radio towers used by the Falun Gong to broadcast deep into China.
Two years earlier, Rohrabacher had threatened “to end his strong legislative support for Taiwan” as the result of a state-owned company’s decision to terminate satellite services for a Falun Gong-connected TV channel.
According to Gary D Rawnsley, a professor at the UK’s Aberystwyth University specialising in Taiwan’s public diplomacy, it is this kind of international attention that is bringing about Taiwan’s hands-off approach towards the Falun Gong. Rawnsley tells Al Jazeera that Taiwan’s handling of the issue is key in differentiating it from China, which claims to be the rightful ruler of Taiwan against the people’s wishes.
“While the government of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] politicises the Falun Gong, bans it and turns it into a bogeyman, the Taiwanese government gains political leeway by portraying Taiwan as a democracy that tolerates different belief systems, however crazy or unpalatable,” Rawnsley says.