First flight in 60 years from Taipei to Beijing

Nearly 60 years after Chiang Kai-shek and his battered troops fled the Chinese mainland to Taiwan, scores of Taiwanese packed the first direct tourist flight from Taipei to Beijing, clutching their special edition stamps and souvenir retractable chopsticks.

"Look at the smog" and "Look at the airport" were the first comments from the passengers when the plane touched down yesterday at Beijing's shiny new Terminal 3, designed by the British architect Norman Foster.

The reception in Beijing was slightly odd, groups of police officers with cameras, videoing everyone getting off the plane. Yet, they were extremely friendly, saying hello to everyone.

Cross-strait relations have warmed considerably since Taiwan's new President, Ma Ying-jeou, took office in March. He moved quickly to fulfil his campaign promise of better ties with the mainland, setting aside decades of hostility since the two sides split in 1949 after the Chinese civil war.

Even as tensions ease, there is an undercurrent of fear among Taiwanese, because China believes Taiwan is part of its territory and claims it is ready to take it back by force if it ever tries to push for more independence, something that the previous president, Chen Shui-bian, often threatened to do. He even managed to anger Taiwan's close ally the United States with his harsh rhetoric about China.

But the hundreds of missiles pointed across the Taiwan Strait were temporarily forgotten yesterday as the excited passengers gathered in the departure lounge at Taoyuan airport; curiously, the flight monitor did not list the destination.

"This is a very positive move; it will bring us all closer together," said Chang Chao-kai, an eye surgeon, as he waited at check-in. Soon after, we were presented with a special edition sheet of stamps, and retractable stainless steel chopsticks from Taiwan's Centre for Disease Control.

I was the only foreigner on the flight, and Taiwanese TV journalists were keen to hear my view on the new arrangements; fellow travellers kept shaking my hand.

The only mainland Chinese on board was Yuan Xie, a computer science professor at Penn State University. "This is a great thing," he said. "Warmer relations are good for everyone. There are so many industrial links, particularly in the semi-conductors area."

There are now 36 direct flights a week, linking the million Taiwanese based on the mainland and their home island, helping boost the £51bn cross-strait trade.

Taiwan is a remarkably different version of China. a capitalist bastion, with a strong traditional overlay long vanished from Communist People's Republic of China. Taiwanese are well-educated, assured, ambitious and successful, but they struggle with being on the wrong side of history in many ways: no major countries give Taiwan diplomatic recognition.

Getting to Taiwan from Beijing had usually involved a compulsory stopover in Hong Kong or Macao, and took 10 hours. The flights take three and a half.

History of a conflict

The island was under the control of China from 1683 to 1895, until Japan took control after victory in the first Sino-Japanese War. But the Second World War allowed the Republic of China government, led by Chiang Kai-shek, then based on the mainland, to take over. After the communist revolution, Chiang's government fled to Taiwan. The relationship between Taiwan and China improved in the 1980s, and in 1991 Taiwan declared the end of the war with China. China maintains that Taiwan is a province of China, and has promised to retake it, even by force. Taiwan, which has its own constitution and armed forces, sees itself as a sovereign state. After Chen Shui-bian became president in 2000, China became more fearful that he would formalise its independence, though Chen said he would only declare independence if China attacked. Now, President Ma Ying-jeou, elected this year, is keen to forge closer ties with the mainland.

Toby Green