As missiles fall, generations split over Taiwan’s relationship with China

KINMEN COUNTY, Taiwan — The cafe at San Jiao Fort on Kinmen Island might just be the best place in Taiwan to watch the threat of invasion from China. Boasting a direct view of the Chinese city of Xiamen just 10 km away, it is built on top of a former military bunker, festooned with camouflage netting, and serves hot and cold drinks.

As Chinese warships now linger off Taiwan’s coast and missiles rain down in its seas, the shared loyalties of the two cafe owners speaks volumes about a generational shift in Taiwan that has transformed relations between island democracy and China.

If China tried to take Taiwan by force, 32-year-old Chiang Chung-chieh would fight, even if the chances of victory are slim. Ting I-hsiu, 52, said he would “surrender”.

With a culture forged by indigenous eras, hundreds of years of Chinese immigration, Japanese colonial occupation and a harsh period of martial law, Taiwan is not monolithic. In its three decades as a democracy, conflicting allegiances have dominated its politics, with debates over whether to accept or oppose China’s claims to the island based on age, identity and geography.

In recent years, under China’s growing warmongering, the middle ground has shifted. Today, Taiwanese increasingly identify as distinct from China. For them, China poses an existential threat to a pluralistic and democratic way of life. They do not view Taiwan as part of a long-divided family, as Mr. Ting and many China-friendly older people describe the relationship.

Even on the islands of Taiwan closest to China, which have always been more friendly to its neighbor, Mr. Ting is an endangered breed. Contradictorily, the older generation, which remembers China’s attacks decades ago more vividly, is the friendliest to the nation. Beneficiaries of Chinese economic liberalization and beneficiaries of an education emphasizing Chinese ties, they remember the years when China opened up to the world and made a lot of wealth, before Xi Jinping became one of the leader. For young Taiwanese, their vision of China is the one Mr. Xi has forged, an illiberal land determined to deny their ability to choose their own leaders.

Although Mr Chiang has had similar experiences to Mr Ting – both have spent time in China and lived much of their lives in Kinmen – he appreciates Taiwan’s openness and feels threatened by Beijing. “I cherish Taiwan’s freedom and democracy and don’t want to be unified by others,” he said.

The outlook, hardened by decades of democratic rule as well as China’s relentless efforts to isolate Taiwan and more recently to dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, has informed many people’s quiet response to Chinese military exercises in response. to the visit of President Nancy Pelosi. This is what many expect from China.

Even at the San Jiao Fort cafe, itself built on a piece of historic rubbish from a not-so-distant past of direct military confrontation, there has been indifference to new threats. Unlike the tanks rusting on the beach below, the discarded equipment reminiscent of the days when the two sides exchanged artillery fire, the drills took place far into the skies and seas. China’s provocative launch of at least 11 missiles on the first day of the drills, one of which crossed Taiwan, was invisible to most.

On the coast of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, an archipelago near mainland China, life went almost as normal, despite being only 25 miles from one of the staging grounds for the exercises. Alongside Taiwanese troops loading artillery shells into a transport boat, a voluntary beach cleanup continued. Many said things had been worse before.

Hardened by decades of military stalemate, older residents shrugged off the tensions. In a confrontation between the United States and China in 1995 and 1996, before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, they recalled how people fled small islands and rushed to banks to cash in their savings during Chinese military actions.

“People were running for their lives,” said 62-year-old Pao Yu-ling.

Ms. Pao is convinced that, just like last time, not much will come of it. It’s a rare point of agreement with her 35-year-old daughter, Chang I-chieh.

She has few memories of past military exercises during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, as the standoff was called at the time. Instead, she said Chinese sand dredgers, which recently invaded the seas near the islands, were a more palpable sign of China’s aggression.

Today, she views Chinese authoritarianism with a critical eye. While her mother thinks economic growth must come first and admires the new buildings that have been erected on neighboring Chinese islands, Ms Chang said freedom and democracy are paramount.

“Sun Yat-sen, our founding father, took so long to win the revolution to get us out of dictatorship, why should we come back?” she says.

The trend is even more apparent further away from China, on the island of Taiwan itself, where the majority of the 23 million people live. There, Jessica Fang, a 26-year-old consultant in the central city of Changhua, said that along with democratic values, the constant threat of attack is becoming more entrenched in her generation’s worldview.

With the current tensions, many observers outside Taiwan appeared to expect Taiwanese to be “hysterically” stockpiling food and making evacuation plans, Ms Fang said, adding that she was offended by this perception. “Taiwanese who seem calm in the face of rising tensions are not due to ignorance or naivety, but because it is accepted – even internalized – as part of being Taiwanese,” he said. she declared.

Still, she acknowledged that China’s recent military posturing has caused her to take the prospect of an attack more seriously. If the Taiwan Strait became a battleground, Ms Fang said she would send her parents to safety and then stay and fight, although she admitted taking up arms might not be the way most effective for her to contribute.

A handful of people on the Taiwanese islands near China saw the exercises. On Kinmen, Chiu Yi-hsuan, a 39-year-old independent bookstore owner, said he felt shockwaves on Thursday. “At first I thought it was thunder, then I realized it wasn’t,” she said.

Even so, she was unfazed. “It brings back my childhood memories of dodging bombs,” she said, adding that current threats weren’t a big deal compared to the past.

To the north, on the Matsu island chain, Tsai Hao-min, a 16-year-old high school student, said he heard an explosive noise and saw a brief burst of light. He showed an image he had captured on his phone of two parallel contrails rising from the Chinese coast.

During a year living in China, Mr. Tsai came to admire aspects of the country, such as its economic growth and technological prowess. Still, he said he planned to join the Taiwanese army when he was old enough. He prefers Taiwan for its freedom of expression.

This is important for his main form of political engagement, making memes to troll the Chinese Communist Party and Mr. Xi online.

In response to growing tensions with China, he created a meme based on footage from the British sitcom, “Mr. Bean,” which showed the titular character checking his watch and falling asleep. Above them, he added his own message: “So, will the Party attack? referring to the Chinese Communist Party by a derogatory nickname.

He said his view of China was unanimously shared by his friends and they did not take the prospect of an invasion seriously. As has often been the case, he said, China’s fury was for show.

“Both missiles made beautiful images. If they have that much money, why don’t they shoot more,” he said.

Amy Chang Chien reported from Kinmen County, John Liu reported from the Matsu Islands and Paul Mazur brought from Taipei.