China, an Eye on Elections, Suspends Some Travel Permits to Taiwan

TAIPEI, Taiwan — The Chinese government announced on Wednesday that it would temporarily stop issuing individual travel permits to Taiwan, a move that appears intended to influence the politics of the self-governing island ahead of a coming election.

The move, which takes effect Thursday, is “the latest in a series of policy tools” that China uses to “express its displeasure with a Taiwan government, regardless of who the president is, that does not adhere to China’s preferred framework,” said Ross Darrell Feingold, a political analyst in Taipei.

It comes at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over China’s periphery and a trade war between the two world powers.

Last week, China released a defense strategy highlighting sovereignty as a primary security concern, and accused “external forces” of supporting Taiwanese independence, an indirect reference to the United States. In July, the United States approved a $2.2 billion sale of military hardware to Taiwan, and it is expected to approve a separate $8 billion package that includes fighter jets.

China has also blamed both America and Taiwan — an unofficial United States ally claimed by Beijing — for fomenting the recent protests and violence that have roiled Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory.

“Looking at the political storm closely — its severity, scale and organization — it’s reasonable to believe that it’s fanned by someone,” Tung Chee-hwa, a former Hong Kong chief executive, said Wednesday in a speech at his pro-China think tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation. “Various signs are pointing at Taiwan and the U.S.”

For their part, American and Taiwanese officials, including Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, have spoken up on behalf of the Hong Kong protesters.

Beijing has long used cultural and economic connections to appeal to Taiwanese people to accept its demand for peaceful unification, while also threatening war if Taiwan were to formalize its functional independence.

Chinese travelers accounted for 28 percent of tourist arrivals to Taiwan in the first six months of this year, according to National Immigration Agency statistics. More than half of those visits were by individual travelers, who contribute more per capita to Taiwan’s economy than those visiting on Chinese tour group packages.

Before Ms. Tsai’s inauguration in May 2016, China limited group tours to Taiwan, which many observers saw as an attempt to pressure Ms. Tsai into accepting the so-called 1992 Consensus, which posits that China and Taiwan are both part of one country. In her inaugural speech, Ms. Tsai called for dialogue but did not endorse the consensus. Beijing cut off official communications with her government shortly afterward.

Taiwan is preparing for a general election in January, when both the presidency and the legislature are up for grabs.

Ms. Tsai’s governing Democratic Progressive Party embraces a Taiwanese identity and close ties with the United States, Japan and other democracies. The opposition Kuomintang, which has in recent years become increasingly close to China’s Communist Party, is pushing for warmer ties with Beijing.

The Kuomintang’s presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, who was officially nominated this weekend, visited China this year and met with the Communist official in charge of Taiwan policy. He also met with the director of China’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, who oversees the “one country, two systems” arrangement that sets out a high degree of autonomy for the territory.

Some in Taiwan speculated that China’s travel permit announcement — published on the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s website — was intended to influence the election in favor of Mr. Han. China did not specify a reason for its action.

“Whether or not China will accelerate the use of such actions in the coming months prior to Election Day remains to be seen,” said Mr. Feingold, the political analyst. “Though China, of course, knows that there’s no guarantee that it would result in an electoral outcome in the presidential or parliamentary elections that it necessarily wants.”

Many in Taiwan have also been carefully watching developments in Hong Kong. President Xi Jinping of China wants Taiwan to accept a similar “one country, two systems” arrangement, though prominent Kuomintang members have publicly distanced themselves from that notion.

Wednesday’s announcement may also be aimed at preventing Chinese tourists from being exposed to Taiwan’s democratic elections or to sentiment favoring Hong Kong’s protesters.

“Not only is China limiting mutual interaction between the Taiwanese and Chinese people, it’s also restricting Chinese people’s freedom of movement, fighting against the opportunity for Chinese to better understand Taiwanese,” said Kolas Yotaka, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s executive branch. “It’s punishing the people of both sides.”

Beijing’s announcement did not include visits to Taiwan by Chinese tour groups, which tend to benefit Chinese businesses while maintaining an ideological bubble through bus travel and carefully selected destinations.

Some individual travelers were able to beat the deadline.

On Wednesday afternoon, Zhao Wenxiu emerged from an office of the Bureau of Exit and Exit Administration in Beijing, having successfully secured a travel permit.

“Got it,” she said. “No big deal — I figure unification is a month away, then there won’t be a need to do this.”

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