1993 / 11月
Elaine Chen /photos courtesy of Diago Chiu /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Passports are intended to serve as personal documents to use abroad for identification and proof of nationality. But because of unusual circumstances in the nation's foreign relations, the history of the ROC passport over the last 40 years sets it apart. Now the document, worth tens of thousands of US dollars, is coveted by international thieves.
When Chen Shang-hsien, who works for HCGMoen, went to Germany to attend an international trade fair in May, his passport was lifted on a train. Putting his travels in abeyance, he went to ROC representatives in Bonn to obtain a substitute passport.
"ROC passports are hot items now," the ROC official posted there told him, "especially with American visas. One of those can go for as much as US$30,000 on the black market."Better than some, worse than others:
From a document on which most foreign governments were loath to put their stamps (issuing visas to ROC citizens on separate sheets of paper), to today's highly esteemed darling of black marketeers and international thieves, the ROC passport has come a long way fast.
Y.C. Pao, president of the trading company Cosmo International who was the first bearer of an ROC passport to travel to Eastern Europe in search of trade 15 years ago, remembers when he had to employ the services of lawyers to get visas to a few particularly difficult countries such as India and Pakistan. In the last five years he has found it much easier. On the other hand, mainland Chinese didn't previously need visas to visit Eastern European countries, but now they are no longer looked upon so sweetly.
People in the travel industry who frequently handle visas to all variety of countries say ROC passports are "better than some, worse than others."
"With a Japanese passport, practically no country will require you to get a visa, whereas we still have to spend a lot of time and money to get them. But what's more maddening is that when we apply for visas to Hong Kong, we are only considered one grade above refugees," Panda Tours' Chang Na-li explains angrily. "The last time a Thai Airways plane was delayed in Hong Kong, only those with ROC passports were barred from entering the city and spending the night. Those travellers from Taiwan had to get off the plane and sleep in the airport."Every dog has his day:
But requiring a visa, after all, isn't too excessive a demand, and ROC passport holders applying for a tourist visa are practically never denied "except for extraordinary individual circumstances," she says. The last time the agency applied to take a tour to Hong Kong, she recounts smiling, only one person was denied. She inferred that the hirsute image on the passport's photo "raised their suspicions."
Those in the travel industry also point out that no ASEAN country required visas for Philippine passports in the sixties. Now 27 countries and territories do not require visas for ROC passports.
"It's primarily a matter of national power," holds Tsui Chung, the Chairman of the Chingtung Trading Company. Less inclined to think that ROC nationals would want out from Taiwan's economic success, other nations are naturally more willing to let them in. On the other hand, although mainland China has relations with more than a hundred nations, PRC passport holders are often denied visas.
The United States, Europe, Japan and Southeast Asian countries, for example, are all strict about requiring various documents for mainland Chinese, including proof of financial resources, reasons for going abroad, guarantors, etc. And the length of stay is often set very short.
Every dog has his day, and now the high status of ROC passports has caused rising reports of their theft.Like credit cards:
"According to cases solved by the police, the vast majority of stolen ROC passports are brought over to mainland China, where they are used to get mainlanders to another country," says David C. Hong, director of the department of Consular Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs states that 15-16,000 ROC passports have been reported lost or stolen in each of the last three years. Hung thinks that ROC citizens are too casual about protecting their passports, lacking the vigilance with which they guard their credit cards and ROC identification cards. Otherwise the figures wouldn't be so high.
"A lot of high officials don't start looking for their passports until the day before they need to take a trip," says Hung, sighing over the difficulties of his work. "When they can't find them, they ask us to take urgent steps to issue them a new one. Then, after it's issued, they call to say that they've found the old one and they want to use it because all of their visas are in it. I tell them that it's too late, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already announced both at home and abroad that the passport has been canceled. Using it could cause all sorts of difficulties. Then they curse me for making things inconvenient for the people."
He is also worried that false passports infringe upon the rights of legitimate holders of ROC passports abroad. Venezuela and Ecuador, for instance, have too often encountered bearers of false ROC passports. Now they herd together all Chinese and slowly inspect their documents. In order to reduce the chances of selling a stolen passport, Hong has suggested requiring people to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs themselves the second time they have lost a passport. This has prompted people's representatives to attack him for "moving backwards."From special permission to ID:
For Taiwan residents, the ROC's issuing of passports has gone from strict to easy.
Early on, during the period of martial law, obtaining a passport required special permission. Economic or educational institutions, for instance, might need to certify that the passport's bearer had to go abroad for business or study. But since revisions to the passport law were passed in June of 1989, the procedures to get passports have become little more than formalities.
For overseas Chinese and residents of mainland China who want ROC passports, on the other hand, the ROC has gone from easy to strict.
Legally, anyone who is a citizen of "China" can obtain an ROC passport, but in reality things aren't so simple. According to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, there are 30 million overseas Chinese in the world. If you add on the Chinese in Hong Kong, Macao and the mainland, the total runs to 1.2 billion. There is no way to give an ROC passport indiscriminately to all of these who might want one.
"Taiwan has started attracting foreigners in recent years," says Chien Tai-lang, director of the Department of Civil Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior. There are high wages and incomes, prosperous industry and commerce, as well as greater public safety and a better political situation than found in many countries. As a result many, including overseas Chinese, hope to come to work in Taiwan.
"For political reasons, the government used to be very loose about granting passports to residents of the mainland," Chien says. "Now the safety and welfare of the 20 million residents of Taiwan comes first, and the way things are handled has been changed."
Similarly, overseas Chinese must present Chinese documents of the first order--such as old ROC passports, entry permits, identity cards, household registries or identification certificates for overseas Chinese issued by the Ministry of the Interior or the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission--before they can obtain a new ROC passport. The certificates attesting to Chinese ethnicity issued by Chinese cooperative associations in the home countries of overseas Chinese are no longer accepted.
From these changes, one can see how the ROC's past policy of "a greater China" contrasts with today's "foothold in Taiwan, concern for the mainland, eyes on the world."Equal status with 14 advanced nations:
The image of the ROC passport has changed with the times.
Early on the gold lettering embossed on ROC passports gave it a classical elegance. In 1987 the passport was shrunk to its current dimensions, the international standard, which make it easy to fit in a pocket. Its cover has at different times been red, blue, black and green, and the typeface was turned into normal script in the early fifties. The current Chinese passport is really rather pedestrian in appearance.
As for content, since July of 1987 when the Central Bank loosened restrictions on remittances of currency abroad, it has no longer been necessary to record one's foreign remittances inside. In 1990, when ROC identity cards began noting place of birth instead of the province of ancestral origin, the passport changed too. The entry for place of birth was changed from China to the province where one was born, such as Taiwan, Jiangsu or Hunan.
In October of last year the ROC passport again took on a new look. It acquired laser color coding, in which all data is stored in a color band. Customs officials need only pass one under a scanner to let its bearer proceed. It's much faster and more convenient.
"This is an International Airline Transport Association standard format now only being used for passports by 14 advanced nations. In the future ROC passport holders in international airports abroad will be able to line up with the nationals of those countries," Hong says. "It will impart a completely different sense of status."Changing times:
As more and more ROC nationals carry passports, the work surrounding the issuing of them has changed.
At first it was handled by the Department of Protocol in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A few junior foreign service officers would take their pens to a stack of passports, filling in such basic information as the applicants' names and dates of birth. Officials like Chang Feng-shu, Chairman of the ROC Olympic Committee, were assigned these duties when they first joined the ministry. Now the Department of Consular Affairs is responsible for issuing passports. With a staff of some 200, it issues more than 1.2 million passports a year. It is planning a move from its office of more than 20 years to quarters near the World Trade Center and the embassies and offices issuing foreign visas.
The department is always swarming with visitors--in stark contrast to the virtually deserted Bureau of Entry and Exit, which used to be the first hurdle for those going abroad. This just goes to show how much things have changed.
The ROC passport is highly valued, with a black market price of several hundred thousand NT dollars.
Recently the police busted a ring selling stolen passports, seizing more than a hundred of them. (photo by He Shu-chun)
(photo by Vincent Chang)
(photo by Vincent Chang)
During the peak seasons of summer and winter vacation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues as many as 6-7000 passports a day.