Geng Lina will be in Taiwan on Saturday, watching with curiosity as the island elects its president and parliament. But she and a group of 30 tourists from the central Chinese city of Xi'an will have to do so from their hotel rooms.
The 26-year-old tour guide said she has been instructed – by mainland Chinese authorities – to keep her charges indoors until the final results are announced. They're not allowed to get too close a look at Taiwan's democracy in action, lest all that choosing proves infectious.
"There are sensitivities," Ms. Geng explained with a shy smile as her group toured the vast Chiang Kai-shek Memorial (a Lincoln Memorial-style shrine to the man who fought a losing civil war against Mao Zedong's Communists more than six decades ago) in central Taipei this week. "On Election Day we are not allowed to go out into the street. We have to stay in our rooms [on Saturday] until the results are announced. Then we can go out."
Asked who gave the order, Ms. Geng pointed up, indicating her superiors, and shrugged. Taiwanese tour operators say tens of thousands of other would-be mainland tourists were prevented from coming at all when Beijing halved the number of tour groups allowed to travel to Taiwan during the election period.
"They're afraid [the tourists] will see how elections are run and that they're peaceful and the government doesn't beat people up," said Bruce Jacobs, an Australian academic who is part of an election-monitoring group known as the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan.
The incumbent President, Ma Ying-jeou, who made warmer ties with China a central plank of his first term in office, said this week that allowing mainland Chinese to see Taiwan's system at work was a side benefit of the increase in trade and tourism of the past few years. "The influence is long-term," he said. "Rome was not built in one day."
The presidential race, which pits Mr. Ma of the Kuomintang against chief rival Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, is considered too close to call. The last published polls showed the two in a virtual tie heading into the final days of the race. Mr. Ma says only his re-election will guarantee continued warm relations with mainland China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province and still has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at the island despite four years of better ties.
Ms. Tsai says Mr. Ma is compromising Taiwan's sovereignty in getting too close to Beijing. Seeking to become Taiwan's first female president, she has also made social justice a key plank of her campaign after the gap between rich and poor widened during Mr. Ma's term in office.
The island of 23 million people, which has developed separately from the Communist-ruled mainland since the end of open hostilities in 1949, is holding only its fifth-ever elections. Mr. Ma's KMT is expected to retain control of the legislature, no matter who wins the separate presidential race.
Witnessing the campaign up close does seem to have had an impact on the Chinese tourists who have been allowed to come. Ms. Geng said her group has soaked up as much as they're allowed to, building detours into their itinerary in order to watch the caravans of the three presidential candidates as they travel the country rallying supporters.
Taiwanese politics transform into a full-blown carnival during campaigns. As candidates shake hands from the back of open-backed cars, supporters set off firecrackers, perform lion dances and pound drums. "Super Sunday," the last weekend before the election, sees hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to show their political colours.
"We like watching the debates, and the [campaign] cars with the loudspeakers and also the in-depth reports about politics that we can see on the TVs in our hotel rooms," Ms. Geng said. "We talk about them a lot. We don't see these things in China."
One Hong Kong tourist agency organized a special "Taiwan Election Carnival Inspection Tour," charging about $350 for a three-day package that included stops at Friday night's final pre-election rallies, as well as visits to voting stations on Saturday and the victory celebrations Saturday night.
The election has also captivated Internet users in mainland China. "The democratic awareness of the Taiwanese people is admirable. Everyone takes part in the voting, everyone cherishes and guards their right to vote. They therefore have the feeling of being the owner," one Beijing-based Internet user wrote on the popular Sina Weibo microblogging website. Others wondered if and when China's Communist rulers would ever allow competitive politics on the mainland.
Many Chinese Internet users expressed the same sentiment their government has quietly made clear – that Mr. Ma's re-election would be better for relations between Beijing and Taipei than a win for Ms. Tsai, whose DPP has flirted in the past with the idea of declaring formal independence. China has long threatened to invade if Taiwanese leaders take such a step.
But while the People's Republic has gone to great lengths not to be seen as interfering in this campaign – after seeing threats and warnings about how Taiwanese should vote backfire in previous elections – a former American diplomat was in hot water Friday for allegedly trying to influence the race.
Douglas Paal, who served as the U.S. de facto ambassador to Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, drew protest from both the DPP and the election observer mission for comments he made to a local television channel disparaging Ms. Tsai's vision for dealing with Beijing. The remarks were interpreted as U.S. support for Mr. Ma's re-election campaign.
Now a vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mr. Paal also laid out the high stakes for the region as Taiwan goes to the polls. "The U.S. and China are both sitting on the edge of their chairs," he said.