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Taiwan president slams Beijing’s solo tourists ban

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Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen gestures during a news conference at the National Palace during her one-day visit to Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 13, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen Thursday criticised Beijing for making “a big strategic mistake” by halting individual travel to the island while her government relaxed rules on Chinese visits in a rebuke to the mainland.

Relations between Beijing and Taipei have plummeted since Tsai of the Beijing-sceptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) came to power in 2016 because her party refuses to recognise the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”.

As punishment, Beijing has cut official communications, ramped up military exercises, poached diplomatic allies and ratcheted up economic pressure on the island.

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China’s tourism ministry announced Wednesday the suspension of individual travel permits to Taiwan “due to current cross-strait relations” — a move that could hurt the island’s economy. The statement did not mention restrictions on group tours.

The move comes as Taiwan gears up for a presidential election in January, with China-friendly candidate Han Kuo-yu of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party hoping to defeat Tsai.

“China’s decision is a big strategic mistake … using tourists as political tools will only spark negative sentiments among Taiwanese people. Tourism should not be politicised,” Tsai told reporters.

“Chinese young people who visit Taiwan as individual travellers is the best way to get to know Taiwan … I regret that the young people are deprived of their rights.”

She said China had always enhanced its “verbal intimidation and sabre-rattling” against Taiwan before elections and accused it of acting “unwisely and irresponsibly” with its recent military drills in the region.

China had allowed its citizens in 47 cities to apply for permits to visit Taiwan on their own instead of on group tours.

Taiwan experienced a sharp drop in mainland tourists since Tsai took office three years ago. The DPP has accused Beijing of using its tourists “as a weapon” to threaten her government.

Taiwan’s interior ministry announced Thursday it had relaxed restrictions on visits by Chinese relatives, a move aimed at highlighting its “human rights values.”

Under new rules which take effect immediately, the spouses of Taiwan residents’ blood relations, such as a step-parent or sister-in-law, are eligible to apply for a relative’s visiting permit.

“China’s arbitrary suspension of individual travellers to Taiwan highlights Chinese people’s lack of free travel rights but we treat the visits by foreign and Chinese nationals the same with open arms,” the ministry said in a statement.

Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since the end of a civil war on the mainland in 1949, but Beijing still views the democratic island as its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

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