The view from the front line between Taiwan and China

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Tthink about it like this: if in a conflict between America and China Taiwan will be the front line, then in a conflict between Taiwan and China that role will be played by Kinmen, an island 187km from Taiwan, which will being managed, but only 3km away from China, which is not.

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Kinmen, only 150 square km, is the main island of the Taiwanese archipelago county of 142,000 inhabitants at the mouth of Xiamen Bay, located opposite the Fujian province in southern China (see map). Rusty anti-ship barricades line its beaches. The skyline of Xiamen, a relatively large sub-regional city just across the water, can be seen from its shores. In 2001 a ferry started operating to Xiamen, turning the island into a tourist and business center. Many in Kinmen would like to be even closer – some have proposed a bridge and want the electricity grids to be connected. They hope not only to make Kinmen richer, but also that closer integration with the Mainland may be the best way to avoid invasion. “America, China, Taiwan, whatever you do, just leave us out of it,” said Chen Yang-hue, a local councilor. He is one of several local politicians who, in February, called for Taiwan to withdraw its troops and “disarm” the island. Taiwan’s central government has not issued a response.

The Kinmen Islands were cut off from mainland China in 1949, when they became a front line in the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan and became an autonomous group. known as the Republic of China, and the Communists, who gained control of the mainland and created the People’s Republic of China.

For decades, Kinmen suffered regular shelling from China even as Taiwan turned the county into a garrison, with up to 100,000 soldiers stationed there. Chinese were forced to carry supplies for the soldiers, live under curfew and train in the city’s combat units from the age of 16. Hong Ming-hwa was a dock worker. , 88, when China attacked Kinmen in 1958, fired more than 470,000 shells in 44 days. More than 600 people died. He remembers soldiers fleeing while he and the locals passed dead bodies in the water to save what they could. “If Kinmen didn’t exist then, Taiwan wouldn’t exist now,” he says.

Many Kinmenese believe they owe Taiwan peace. The anti-China politicians complain that Taiwan’s politics are preventing Kinmen from prospering, and that they have been left behind while mainland China and the rest of Taiwan prosper. . That’s misleading: Kinmen’s average disposable income per person in 2021 was about $13,200, compared to $21,800 in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and $9,980 in Xiamen.

But the contrast between the small towns of Kinmen and the high rise of Xiamen still causes envy. Kinmenese want to be part of China’s growth and China wants to invest, said Chen Yu-Jen, who represents Kinmen in the national parliament: “They will do us well, they will make us a model, and Kinmen can development and success. But Taiwan will not accept this. ”

Supporters of demilitarization also blame Taiwan, not China, for threatening Kinmen’s safety. China does not want to attack Kinmen in the first place because they are a family, argued Mr. Chen, the consultant. But the 3,000 Taiwanese soldiers stationed in Kinmen are a “thorn” in China’s side that should be removed, he says. “If we are not a threat, they will not harm us,” he says.

The arguments strike some as naive. Kinmenese are not debating whether peace through unification with China would mean a loss of freedom, said Wang Ling, 37. Ms. Wang grew up in Kinmen and went to university in Taipei. She used to argue with her classmates in Taiwan, insisting that she was Chinese because of Kinmen’s Fujian heritage. Kinmenese speak the same southern Fujianese dialect as people in Xiamen. Many still live in traditional Fujianese homes with red curved roofs. But gradually she realized that her relationship with China was cultural, not political. In Taipei she became involved in labor rights campaigns. Later, she studied in Beijing, where she witnessed the suppression of local activists. Now she calls herself Taiwanese. Already Kinmenese politicians act “like obedient children”, not equals, when interacting with Chinese officials, she says.

And just because Kinmen says “no war” doesn’t mean it won’t happen, says Tung Sen-po, a county councilor who opposes the disarmament plan as unrealistic. Instead Kinmen – and Taiwan – should prepare for the worst while holding on to their democratic values, he says. That’s a tough message for people who feel they have little control over their future. “We are the bets, the chess pieces,” says Mr. Tung, “not the chess players.”

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