Direct Mail: New Sign of China-Taiwan Thaw

THE address on the envelope reads: ``To the red house in the second lane on the left. Harbin, China.'' The Taiwanese writer is trying to find someone on the Chinese mainland after four decades of separation. Almost 2 million troops and civilians fled from China to Taiwan with the Nationalist government in 1949. Since then, many have never had news from home.

More than 10,000 letters like this arrive every day at Post Box 50000, set up by the Taiwan Red Cross last year to provide the first mail link between Taipei and Beijing since 1949. Post Box 50000 is one result of whirlwind changes that have transformed Taiwan's relations with its communist neighbor over the last 18 months.

Taipei's Nationalist rulers still steadfastly refuse official contact with Beijing. Nevertheless, they have started to allow a wide range of unofficial contacts.

An agreement this month will permit Taiwanese sports teams to participate in mainland competitions, even though the Taiwanese are not officially allowed to visit China.

Like the other reforms, Post Box 50000 is designed to bring people together while keeping the two governments apart.

``It's the only solution, given the current political situation,'' said Patrick Hsieh, director of international affairs at the Red Cross's Taipei office.

The ban on official contact has complicated the task of mailmen, who are required to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent direct contact between the two postal services.

Every letter arriving at the post box bears a Taiwanese stamp, which is then carefully peeled off. The letters are forwarded to a Red Cross office in Hong Kong, which posts them using British colony stamps.

In a breakthrough decision this month, Taipei decided to send an official delegation to Beijing for the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank in May.

The Communications Ministry has suggested opening up a direct mail service and now awaits official approval. The Directorate General of Telecommunications has also proposed allowing Taiwanese people to place long-distance phone calls to China.

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