By Raju Gopalakrishnan and James Pomfret
TAIPEI (Reuters) - Thousands of Chinese have flown to Taiwan ahead of the island's presidential and parliamentary elections this weekend, eager -- and bemused -- to see how democracy works in the land of the old enemy.
The China-Taiwan split was one of Asia's historic divisions in the 20th century, along with India-Pakistan and North and South Korea. But while those partitions are still rockfast, China and Taiwan are in the process of rapprochement, with millions of travelers crossing the Taiwan Strait in either direction each year.
High on any mainland Chinese itinerary in Taiwan are Taipei 101, which at 508 meters is the world's second-tallest building and sits atop one of the capital's ritziest shopping malls, and the arched memorial hall to Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who helped topple the last imperial dynasty and is known as the father of modern China.
Hundreds of mainlanders thronged the sites on Friday, braving a blustery wind and intermittent drizzle on the eve of Taiwan's fifth direct presidential election. For most, it was the first ringside view of an open election.
"It seems so extreme here, this campaigning is something that would never be allowed in China," said Wang Liping, a 42-year-old from Chongqing in central China, at the cloud-shrouded observatory deck of Taipei 101.
"China's way is better in that the new leaders are those selected for their experience, in a systematic manner ... I don't think it's a good idea to elect someone who has no experience just because they have more votes."
Taiwan's boisterous election campaign is broadcast live by over half a dozen news channels throughout the day, with candidate pledges, motorcades, firecrackers and rallies covered in excruciating detail.
With the two leading candidates -- Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Nationalist Party and Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) -- very close in opinion polls, there has been no easing in the excitement as polling day comes close.
"It's pretty good to have democracy, but it wastes a lot of time and resources," said another tourist from Jiangsu province in eastern China who wore a leather jacket with a camera around his neck.
He gave only his family name, Wu, reflecting a nervousness among many mainland Chinese in discussing democracy and politics. Many mainlanders refused to comment on the elections. One who started to do so was pulled away by his wife.
But Wu, who was holding a shopping bag as he walked around the Taipei 101 shopping mall with two friends, said: "China's democracy is different from Taiwan's."
"Taiwan's democracy is loud and explicit, but China's is more subtle and low key. The style is different, you wear a suit, we wear jeans."
The measured warmth is a far cry from the anger and tumult of Taiwan's first direct presidential election in 1996, which an infuriated China saw as tantamount to a declaration of independence and fired missiles into waters near the island.
Beijing deems Taiwan a renegade province that must eventually reunify with the mainland. Taiwan, which calls itself the Republic of China, is a staunch U.S. ally. Taiwan, with 23 million people, is dwarfed by China's 1.3 billion, although both their populations are mostly Han Chinese.
Despite the ideological differences, the two sides see much virtue in economic cooperation. Ironically, the Nationalists, who lost the 1940s civil war in China to the Communists and fled to Taiwan, are now viewed as much closer to Beijing than the DPP, which is largely seen as the party of local Taiwanese and is viewed with suspicion by China for its pro-independence past.
Ma signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement trade deal with China in 2010, cutting tariffs while forging vital new tourism, business and travel links. Many economists see stronger ties with China's vast markets as vital for Taiwan's heavily export-dependent economy because of the slowdown elsewhere in the world.
"I want Ma to win tomorrow," said Li Jinhui, from Liaoning province in northeast China, watching the changing of the guard in front of a giant statue of Sun Yat-sen along with scores of other mainland tourists.
He shrugged off the historical enmity between the two sides with a laugh. "The Nationalist government and the Communist Party are both the same now, they're both Chinese. The past doesn't matter."
(Editing by Brian Rhoads)