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Direct flights made between China, Taiwan for first time since 1949

BEIJING—For the first time in more than five decades, commercial airliners on Saturday flew nonstop across the tense Taiwan Strait, uniting families for the most important holiday in the Chinese-speaking world.

The direct flights, which will take place for the next three weeks, marked an unusual respite in tensions between China and Taiwan.

Bright red Lunar New Year banners festooned airports, and dancers gave passengers a festive send-off on the first flights, which left simultaneously at 8 a.m. (7 p.m. EST Friday) from Beijing and Guangzhou on the mainland and from Taipei, Taiwan's capital. China's state television offered live coverage.

A China Southern Airlines Boeing 777 that left Guangzhou touched down in Taipei later in the morning, becoming the first Chinese commercial airliner to land on Taiwan since 1949.

Over the next three weeks, 12 mainland and Taiwanese airlines will offer a total of 48 round-trip direct flights across the Strait. Once the holiday ends, the nonstop flights will halt.

The roughly 1 million Taiwanese living on the mainland, as well as those on the island, embraced the flights with the hope that they may become permanent one day.

"The great majority of people—80 percent—consider this a good development," said Chao Chien-min, a professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, speaking of recent opinion surveys. "It's a good breakthrough in the very icy relations."

A Taiwanese businessman based in Beijing, Wu Hsi-yang, said he was eager to take a nonstop flight rather than making a perfunctory stopover in the former British colonies of Hong Kong or Macao, far to the south, prolonging the trip by many hours.

"Normally, it takes about 12 hours for each trip to go back to Taipei," he said.

The nonstop flights still must travel far to the south through Hong Kong airspace before turning northeast to Taiwan. But the Beijing-Taipei flight will take only a little over four hours.

China's turn toward free markets has drawn thousands of Taiwanese businesses to the mainland to build and run factories. Trade rose 34 percent last year to more than $70 billion.

It's to permit Taiwanese business owners and managers who work in China to return home for the holiday that the direct flights were agreed on Jan. 15.

Yet amid the economic integration, China is agitated by Taiwan's vocal claims to de facto sovereignty. Taiwan, now a democracy, has been ruled separately from the mainland for decades, first as a Japanese colony and later as the refuge of the losing Nationalist forces after the Chinese civil war in 1949.

China claims Taiwan as a part of its territory and says it may use military force to reunify with the island.

A spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Council in Beijing, Li Weiyi, said this week that relations across the strait were "grim" and that a "grave threat" loomed.

Tensions may well explode this spring. In March, China's legislature, the National People's Congress, is set to approve an "anti-secession" law that would make it a crime for anyone to advocate breaking away from the motherland.

Taiwan views the proposal as a legal artifice for military action. In response, it's preparing an "anti-annexation" law that would hinder any forcible reunification, said Xu Bodong, the director of the Taiwan Institute at Beijing Union University. He said Beijing would see approval of such a law by Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's government as an unacceptable move toward independence.

"It's like two trucks moving toward a head-on collision," Xu said.

Chen's government in Taipei acceded to the nonstop holiday flights partly to temper international pressure on the island to lessen conflict with China.

"Given the current tense—even hostile—situation, the president wants to give the impression to people in Taiwan and outside Taiwan that he is capable of handling cross-strait relations in peace," said Chao, the Taiwanese academic.

Chen this week designated a new premier, Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh, who is widely viewed as a pragmatist. Hsieh immediately said he would backpedal on a policy to change the island's official title in schools and state companies from the Republic of China to Taiwan. China views any name change as a move toward independence.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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