Residents of islands belonging to Taiwan are at the center of growing tensions
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen, has left the U.S after meeting House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Her visit, which was officially called a quote, "transit," triggered warnings from Beijing. That has put residents of a strip of small islands belonging to Taiwan, but just miles from China's mainland, at the center of these growing tensions again, NPR's Emily Feng and John Ruwitch bring you this story. And a warning, you will hear sounds of gunshots.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Local Taiwanese politician Tsai Chi-yung still remembers when his home on Kinmen Island was a battleground.
TSAI CHI-YUNG: (Through interpreter) When I was a child, I experienced China and Taiwan bombarding each other on alternating days, and you had to take cover in bomb shelters. War is really merciless.
FENG: The shelling stopped in the late 1970s. Kinmen has since been demeaned of remaining explosives, though Taiwan still maintains a military presence on the islands.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)
FENG: You can hear behind me the crack of artillery practice, which is just a reminder that even though a lot of troops already left Kinmen, some of it's still an active military base because of its proximity to China. But it's also a popular tourist site these days. Yet because of rising tensions with China, the threat of war now feels very real again.
CHEN YANGHU: (Through interpreter) COVID shut down the ferry connections between China's Xiamen and Taiwan's Kinmen. And then with the media reporting on the war in Ukraine, us Kinmen residents can't help but think about previous battles and bombardment from China. We're really afraid we'll face war again.
FENG: This is Kinmen native and opposition party politician Chen Yanghu. He thinks the only way to avoid conflict with China is to strengthen economic ties. That's why this year he proposed to turn his hometown into a demilitarized zone, kind of like the Korean DMZ, a strip of neutral space between North and South Korea.
CHIN Y: (Through interpreter) That way, both sides have equal status. Only that way can you gradually build up a space for shared livelihood and perhaps even joint administration of both Kinmen and China's Xiamen, so the two can be more connected to develop and protect Kinmen.
FENG: Chin holds a Taiwanese passport, but he proudly tells me he sees himself as culturally Chinese.
CHIN Y: (Through interpreter) Kinmen residents own 20 to 30,000 houses in China. Because of family and ethnic ties on both sides, we already feel like one big family.
FENG: None of this sits well with Taipei, where the ruling political party, the DPP, is highly suspicious of China. Here's DPP politician Chen Jianzhong in Kinmen.
CHEN JIANZHONG: (Through interpreter) Taiwan would have to remove troops from Kinmen if we had a DMZ. But even if China agreed to remove proportional amounts of troops on its side, that would still leave Kinmen vulnerable.
FENG: Controversy over the DMZ proposal reflects Taiwan's fraught identity politics. Most residents in Kinmen advocate for much closer ties with China because of a shared cultural identity. But that's not how most people in Taiwan feel. About two-thirds say in the latest poll that they feel Taiwanese, not Chinese. But these nuances fade just offshore in Chinese waters, where my colleague John Ruwitch is on a tour boat.
JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: In the background there you can see an island which is run by Taiwan, administered by the Taiwanese government. It's just a couple of miles off the coast of China. We're on a tourist boat now, and you can see it in the background there.
There are daily tours from China. It only takes about a half hour to get within a few hundred meters of Taiwan-controlled territory. People like Luo Guangmin travel from deep inside China for a look.
LUO GUANGMIN: (Through interpreter) Kinmen Island is so close to the mainland. Why hasn't it been reunited with us sooner?
RUWITCH: Wang Yueyun from southwest China is part of the same tour group.
WANG YUEYUN: (Through interpreter) We think the country should reunite because we are all Chinese. If we reunite, it will lead to a good life under our party's care.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Mandarin).
RUWITCH: Despite the rising tension across the Taiwan Strait, back on land in China, there are still plenty of people from Taiwan looking for opportunity.
LAI LAI: (Speaking Mandarin).
RUWITCH: Lai Lai was born and raised in Taiwan and moved to Xiamen nearly six years ago for work.
LAI LAI: (Through interpreter) Actually, after coming to Xiamen, I realized, eh, it's pretty similar to Taiwan. They speak the same language, which I can understand.
RUWITCH: The pace of life is similar, too, she says. In Xiamen, Lai's taking part in one of many programs backed by the Chinese government to attract Taiwanese youth and win them over. The one she's at is like an incubator for cultural products, stuff like T-shirts or coffee mugs with cool designs. And she's come to the conclusion that the future for Taiwan is with China.
LAI LAI: (Through interpreter) Actually, the environment in Taiwan has really been shrunk down to something quite small. So if you don't seize the opportunity to do things with the mainland, you'll just be stuck in Taiwan.
RUWITCH: Lai says her family doesn't get it, and she thinks they've been misled by the media. They even told her not to come home over Lunar New Year a few months ago because they were afraid of the coronavirus after China dropped all its restrictions and she tested positive.
LAI LAI: (Speaking Mandarin).
RUWITCH: She says she had not been back for three years, and it hurt when they told her she should stay away. For Lai Lai, Xiamen is now a kind of home away from home. She's even written songs about it, which she and her colleagues sing.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Mandarin).
LAI LAI: (Through interpreter) I actively have called upon my friends in Taiwan to come to the mainland to visit. Walk around, check things out for three or four days, and you'll see that things are different from what you imagined.
RUWITCH: Kinmen across the water and Xiamen were front lines for past battles. Now they're the front line in China's battle for hearts and minds in Taiwan. I'm John Ruwitch in Xiamen in China.
FENG: And Emily Feng, NPR News, Kinmen, Taiwan.
(SOUNDBITE OF CORBIN SONG, "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.