ONLY 70 nautical miles of sea divide the impoverished north coast of China's Fujian Province from the shimmering beaches of Taiwan. But for thousands of Fujianese laborers who are cramming into rickety fishing boats for the precarious, three-day voyage across the Taiwan Strait, the prosperous, industrialized island is a world apart.
The growing flood of illegal migrants from northern Fujian illustrates Taiwan's dilemma: How can the island nation promote increased ties with communist China without sacrificing its vibrant economy and political autonomy?
To live by its self-proclaimed title of ``Free China,'' Taiwan must allow the waves of workers to hit its shore. But officials say the migrants also subvert Taiwan's fledgling democracy.
The influx began in late 1988, when Taipei announced that it would allow small numbers of mainland Chinese to visit the island for the first time in 40 years.
Lured by the prospects of jobs and ready wealth, factory workers and peasants in northern Fujian hire ``snakeheads,'' or smugglers, to ship them to Taiwan. The price of passage plunged from $1,500 to $200 as smuggling operations proliferated, officials say.
Arriving with a few New Taiwan dollars exchanged on Fujian's thriving black market, the migrants head for cities. Men often find jobs on construction teams or in tiny, ``underground factories.'' Women sometimes work as prostitutes. Despite exploitative wages, migrants earn several times the $30 to $40 monthly pay at mainland factories.
As many as 100 mainlanders arrive illegally each day, and the government is unable to stem the tide.
``The number of those captured is increasing, more than the government expected and faster than we can repatriate them,'' says Chen Charng-ven, secretary-general of Taiwan's Red Cross, which coordinates the repatriation with mainland Red Cross officials.
Taiwan police have stepped up patrols on beaches and factory inspections, detaining about 12,000 migrants since 1988 and repatriating most of them. But police say many more have escaped capture.
``There are several tens of thousands here. We can't know for sure,'' says Liu Peng-chen, deputy commissioner of the Entry and Exit Bureau of Taiwan's police administration.
Officials charge that China's communist authorities are encouraging the outflow in a ``sea of faces'' campaign to disrupt the economy of Taiwan, one of the world's most densely populated places.
Mainland authorities are also accused of worsening crime on Taiwan by allowing gangs to smuggle Chinese-made ``black star'' pistols and other weapons onto the island.
YET Taipei hesitates to adopt a harsher policy toward the migrants, who are referred to as touduke, or literally ``guests who cross over secretly.''
Sensitivities are high, since most migrants are neighboring Fujianese, who share a common culture and language with Taiwanese. The deaths of 46 mainlanders in two boat accidents during their expulsion last summer sparked a public outcry.
In response to criticism, the government is considering a plan to permit some migrants to take blue-collar jobs shunned by island residents, despite concerns that many would establish families here and bring relatives over.