NANJING, China -- A historic trip to China by the head of Taiwan's opposition party began Tuesday with a flurry of eggs and punches from angry supporters of the island's president at Taipei airport. Hours later, he was welcomed with flowers and speeches by Chinese communist officials who hailed his arrival as a sign of reconciliation.
The contrasting treatment underscores controversy surrounding the visit by Nationalist Party chairman Lien Chan, the most prominent Taiwanese political figure to come to the mainland since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.
Lien says his journey aims to lower tensions between the sides. Detractors say he is selling out Taiwan's interests and allowing Beijing to exploit divisions within Taiwanese society.
"Taipei and Nanjing are not too distant, but it still took 60 years to come here," Lien said on reaching the eastern city of Nanjing. "It certainly took too long to make the journey."
It wasn't an easy journey.
Nationalist supporters seeing Lien off at the airport in Taipei, Taiwan's capital, scuffled with backers of President Chen Shui-bian. Chen's party wants formal independence for Taiwan, while Lien's party favors eventually uniting the self-ruled island with the mainland.
The rival groups detonated fireworks and blew air horns while shoving, kicking and punching each other. Lien supporters, gripping flags, tried to break through a police cordon but were pushed back.
Lien's visit is the first by a Nationalist leader since the party, which once ruled both Taiwan and China, fled the mainland following its defeat by the communists. It includes a meeting Friday with Chinese President Hu Jintao -- the first encounter between leaders of the two former enemies in six decades.
Less than 20 years ago, the visit would have been unthinkable. The Nationalists -- who ruled Taiwan for five decades until losing power in 2000 -- often jailed people who were sympathetic to the communists. Until the late 1980s, they banned Taiwanese from visiting the mainland.
But the tensions began to ease in the early 1990s, and Taiwanese tourists and businesses started flocking to the mainland. After losing the presidency, the Nationalists began pushing for closer ties with China, partly out of their shared opposition to Chen.
Referring to their newfound common ground, communist official Li Yuanchao praised Lien's visit as being "profoundly important for maintaining peace and stability and stopping the separatist plotting of the Taiwan independence forces."
"Chinese people at home and abroad have bestowed great importance," on the visit, Li, the governor of Jiangsu province -- which includes Nanjing -- told Lien in a meeting today.