XIAMEN - When Taiwanese college student Lai Syuan-hong crossed the Taiwan Strait to arrive in Xiamen last Friday, his mainland impressions included its yawning rich-poor divide, miraculous maglev train, over-popularization, and one related to a tempestuous protest.
A witness of the "Sunflower Movement" that swept Taiwan earlier this year, the 20-year-old from Penghu County seemed undaunted by the negative mainland image depicted by some protesters and decided to find out what it was like for himself.
"I found many protesters did not seem to fully understand the service trade pact they were against or the Chinese mainland," he said. "I also wanted to know how mainland students and the public see this issue."
Lai was among a group of Taiwanese students attending the sixth Straits Forum that opened on Sunday in the southeastern city of Xiamen, the largest event of grassroots cross-Strait exchanges to take place in the wake of the student protest.
There were doubts over the future of Taiwan-mainland relations following the three-week protest over a cross-Strait service trade pact. But Lai and other Taiwanese attendees gave a picture of booming interactions that are unlikely to be disrupted by the protest.
But experts said with younger Taiwanese emotionally divided on cross-Strait relations, future youth exchange programs need fine-tuning to resolve widespread misunderstandings.
Both sides of the Strait were shocked after hundreds of college students seized Taiwan's legislative headquarters in March. The students initially opposed what they saw as undemocratic tactics used by Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) to pass the service pact in the legislative body. They later demanded the scrapping of the pact and supervision on future cross-Strait agreements.
Largely deemed as a boost to Taiwan's lackluster economy, the pact aims to open up 80 of the mainland's service sectors to Taiwan and 64 Taiwan sectors to the mainland.
In a speech delivered at the forum, KMT Vice Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu said the protest suggested that some Taiwanese were questioning whether benefits brought by warming cross-Strait relations had been fairly distributed in Taiwan.
Hung also warned against the emotional estrangement now spreading among the younger generations in Taiwan and the mainland.
Tseng Wen-pei, chairman of the KMT Youth League, said some Taiwanese youngsters feel less connected to the mainland, partly because of the removal of Chinese elements from textbooks, as part of reforms by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
To build closer ties, Tseng proposed pushing youth exchange activities to the "deep-water zone", where youngsters can deepen their understanding of society across the Strait via in-depth discussions.
"We've passed the phase of exchanging name cards, making friends and arranging sightseeing visits, though it was necessary at the start," he said. "What we should do now is set topics and encourage them to hold frank and in-depth discussions."
At the Straits Youth Forum, a sub-forum of the Straits Forum, Taiwanese youngsters were encouraged to seek job opportunities on the mainland to grab a share of its ever-expanding market.
Tseng said Taiwan youngsters on the island feel uncertain about their future and are upset about low wages. On the other hand, they lack knowledge of what the mainland can offer and fear they cannot compete with their mainland peers.
It is therefore important that future youth exchanges see to such concerns, Tseng said. He suggested holding employment expos and establishing platforms to encourage more Taiwanese to seek better-paying jobs in the mainland.
The mainland leadership shares this view. Top political advisor Yu Zhengsheng gave a speech on Sunday, in which he described Taiwanese youth as having "exceptional qualities" and encouraged them to realize their potential on the "broad stage" of cross-Strait cooperation.
Industry observers have said Taiwanese college graduates excel in their innovative spirit and professionalism, and that there are opportunities abound as the mainland explores its cultural and innovative industries.
Chang Hsi-Tzu, secretary-general of the Taiwan-based Association of Chinese Elite, sees bright prospects ahead. She said there has been a rising trend of grassroots-level youth exchanges in recent years.
"In the past, the patterns were officials and entrepreneurs taking students across the Strait for exchange activities, but now many student entrepreneurs and social workers, eager to expand their business or influence, will contact Hong Kong or mainland peers for cooperation," she told Xinhua.
A long-time participant of such youth programs, Chang said, "The fact we share the same culture makes our intentions of cooperation higher than, say with people in another Asian country."
Chang advised the authority to encourage such grassroots interactions by providing support and in some cases letting go of their controlling hands to allow youngsters to take the lead.
As Lai Syuan-hong concluded his three-day trip on Monday, which included a tour of Gulangyu Island and seminars with local university students in Xiamen, he formed new judgments about the mainland, like the mainland city is not as crowded as he had imagined, and youngsters here have developed their own lively Internet communities via Weibo and WeChat, if not Facebook.
"When I'm back in Penghu, I'll share my insights with my classmates," he said.