Chinese officials arrive in Taiwan on first post-COVID visit

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A group of Chinese officials arrived in Taiwan on Saturday on the first visit in three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, to attend a cultural event at a time of soaring military tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s government this week allowed the trip of six officials, lead by Li Xiaodong, deputy head of the Shanghai office of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, to attend the Lantern Festival in Taipei, at the invitation of the city government.

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Li, arriving at Taipei’s downtown Songshan airport, did not answer questions from reporters. His group was ushered into a van under heavy security and driven away.

Around a dozen pro-Taiwan independence supporters protested his arrival outside the airport, shouting “Taiwan and China, separate countries” and “Chinese people, get out,” while on the airport road another small group of pro-China supporters shouted their welcome.

Chilly Chen, head of the pro-independence Taiwan Republic Office, told Reuters the Taiwanese people were very hospitable and welcomed visitors but were concerned they were coming to push Chinese policies on the democratic island.

"Everything China does is in the service of politics, and their aim is definitely united front,” Chen added, referring to the name of China's policy to co-opt non-Communists and Taiwan's people in particular.

Taiwan's China-policy-making Mainland Affairs Council said the group has been allowed to come as long as they keep a low profile and it hoped their visit would promote mutual understanding and “healthy and orderly exchanges.”

Taipei Mayor Chiang Wan-an, from the main opposition party the Kuomintang which traditionally favours close relations with China, told reporters they "very much welcomed” the delegation.

Arrangements for the group will follow the principles of “low-key, simple, and secure” as set out by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, Chiang told reporters.

While China has refused to speak to Taiwan’s government since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016, believing she is a separatist, city-to-city exchanges had continued until interrupted by the pandemic.

Still, Tsai's administration has cautiously been trying to reopen less sensitive people-to-people links since it lifted pandemic-related border controls late last year, aiming to engender goodwill with China.

China continues to carry out military activities near Taiwan, including almost daily crossings of the Taiwan Strait's median line by Chinese air force jets, which had previously served as an unofficial barrier.

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