‘All we can hope for is peace’: the view from Kinmen, once the frontline of the cold war between China and Taiwan | Taiwan

AAs Nancy Pelosi left for her historic visit to Taiwan this week, videos began circulating on Chinese social media showing armored vehicle convoys driving along beaches in the port city of Xiamen, on China’s southeast coast.

Less than 3 miles away, in Taiwan’s Kinmen islands, life went on as usual, even as China announced a series of unprecedented military exercises that Taiwan’s defense ministry says amount to a blockade. Children played in the streets, students posed for graduation photos, and buses carrying tourists continued to make their way around the islands’ attractions.

Tourism is one of the largest industries in Kinmen, also known as Quemoy. Ancient military sites, relics from the days when the islands were the front lines of the Cold War between China and Taiwan, pollute the landscape. Giant coastal loudspeakers that once blared propaganda across the sea now play soft music.

A favorite stopover for visitors is Wu Tseng-dong’s workshop. Wu has been making knives for decades and continues his father’s business. “In the beginning, our main customers were soldiers, but as the tourism industry developed, we really started to make a living,” he says.

Each of Wu’s knives is made from a used artillery shell.

On August 23, 1958, the Chinese army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), launched a heavy artillery bombardment of Kinmen, which lasted to some extent for more than 20 years. Many people in Kinmen can vividly remember living under constant shelling – a fact that sets the people of Kinmen apart from most Taiwanese.

“Everyone who lived here then has friends and family who were murdered. We had to dig our own air raid shelters. If you didn’t, you had nowhere to hide when the grenades fell,” Wu says.

Vintage tanks on display in Kinmen
Vintage tanks on display in Kinmen. “War is heartless,” says a local. Photo: Rick Yi

This legacy and disparate histories – unlike Taiwan proper, Kinmen has been completely under Chinese rule in one form or another for hundreds of years – that few in Kinmen would even call themselves “Taiwanese.” They are happy to be part of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, and see no need to declare a separate, independent country.

The pro-independence Democratic Progressive party under President Tsai Ing-wen has ruled Taiwan for the past six years, but politics in Kinmen is dominated by the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), who favor closer ties with China. The islands’ representative to the Taiwan legislature, Chen Yu-jen of the KMT, says her voters are unhappy with Tsai’s policy towards China, citing a lack of communication between the two sides as a reason for the current crisis.

Although Chen welcomed Pelosi’s visit, she said it was not worth the damage to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing. But she says the people in Kinmen were not worried about China’s military maneuvers: “There is no reason for them to attack Kinmen. Their target is Taiwan; if Taiwan falls, Kinmen will follow.”

Her view is shared by Samuel Hui, a military historian who lives in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung.

Metalworkers use old artillery shells when people watch
There are many war relics in Kinmen. “People have no idea what we’ve been through,” says one veteran. Photo: Rick Yi

“Kinmen used to be very important for the defense of Taiwan. The Chinese communists had to take Kinmen to have a chance of a successful invasion. But now the PLA has multiple aircraft carriers and ballistic missiles to attack Taipei and other major cities directly. There is no good reason to invade Kinmen.”

Despite Kinmen’s historical ties to China, there is a growing generation gap. Many young people leave Kinmen to look for work elsewhere in Taiwan, and few can imagine living under the authoritarian system of the Communist mainland. In the 2020 elections, Tsai’s share of the vote in Kinmen grew by 57% following Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.

Nina Hong grew up traveling back and forth between the main island of Taiwan and Kinmen. She considers herself Taiwanese and is proud of the democratic freedoms she enjoys. The 28-year-old, who works for a company that sells beauty products in Taiwan, says the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are talking past each other too often. “Pelosi’s visit has pushed people to their limits. It helped more people around the world to see Taiwan, but it doesn’t solve anything [Taiwan’s international isolation].”

Nina Hong sitting in a rock crevice
Nina Hong: ‘Pelosi’s visit pushed people to their limits.’ Photo: Nina Hong

In Wu’s workshop, he shows off a newly forged blade as he explains to an audience from grandparents to young children how people on the island could hear the sound of an artillery shell where it would land.

“I don’t think there will be a war,” he says. “But since the pandemic, exchanges between Taiwan and mainland China have stopped. I think it has had a negative impact on the relationship.”

When asked whether he blames Beijing for military action after Pelosi’s visit, Wu hesitates. “That’s politics, not something ordinary people like us can control,” he says. “All we can hope for is peace.”

It’s a sentiment shared by 83-year-old Cheng Ching-li, head of the local association for veterans of the second crisis in the Taiwan Strait. “People have no idea what we’ve been through,” he says. “War is heartless. And peace is priceless.”

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