How many kilometers are needed to divide two worlds?
… This month I found out that three can be enough!
There are several reasons why it is worth to visit Kinmen: one could be the famous liquor Kaoliang, another the high-quality knifes produced on the island, or a third one the delicious seafood. Even though it´s an island, you would definitely not go there to lie on the beach. The purpose of my trip to Kinmen was another one: To learn about the history of Taiwan and China. With one of my study courses I went there on an excursion in order to get a feeling for the relations between the two countries.
Chinese Rocks: Kinmen is 150km away from Taiwan, but only 3km from China
About Kinmen and the Chinese Civil War
Kinmen is a small island with a size of about 150km² and 68,000 inhabitants. Even though it lies only 3km away from the Chinese mainland and about 160km from the Taiwanese Island, it is administrated by the Taiwanese government.
Kinmen plays a significant role in the history of Taiwan. As briefly mentioned in my last post the states of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan in former times both claimed to be the ‘legitimate China’, as can be noticed in their names: The official name of Taiwan is Republic of China (ROC) whereas the mainland calls itself the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After the end of World War II and the defeat of the Japanese occupants, the civil war between the Chinese communists and the nationalist government returned, which had been interrupted by the dispute with Japan. In the course of this war the communists, lead by Mao Zedong, gained more and more territory. The frontline shifted from the north to the south of the country until the nationalists fled to the Chinese islands, mainly Taiwan. From here the nationalist government, lead by Chiang Kai-Shek, continued the civil war. While Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chiang Kai-Shek and the Republic of China declared the aim of returning to the mainland and retaking the country one day.
During the war the ROC lost some of the islands to the communists, but Kinmen had a symbolic importance for the nationalists to demonstrate the willingness to fight. For this reason a huge amount of military force was placed on the island. Hard-fought battles took place and thousands of bombs were fired from the mainland on the island. The beaches of northern Kinmen turned into a bloody battlefield. In the first fight in 1949 the nationalists counted 3,000 and the communists 12,000 dead people. In 1958 the island was bombed again with hundreds of dead on both sides. In both fights the ROC defended the island.
Kinmen´s War Museum shows the history of the battle in 1949
The relations between Taiwan and China after the Civil War
It is very interesting how the Chinese civil war was viewed internationally. During World War II the Chinese nationalist government and western forces were allies. Even after the civil war, when the People´s Republic was proclaimed already, the ROC (Taiwan) was still supported from the west. The USA invested a lot of capital to help the nationalist government develop the country. One could argue that this was due to geostrategic reasons, having a huge area of Asia lead by communists. But also the United Nations still saw the ROC as the legitimate government of China by that time. This situation changed in 1971, when the UN decided to accredit the PRC as the government of ‘the whole China’. The so-called ‘One-China policy’ in the western world began. Also in this case, the reason of the decision might be a strategic one. Meanwhile the People´s Republic saw Taiwan all the time only as a disloyal province of China – and still does so today.
Maintaining the status quo
Today the relations between Taiwan and China are still a very sensitive issue. While the two countries have strongly interlinked economies, talking about the political situation is rather taboo. As Taiwan has developed from an authoritarian government to a modern democracy in the course of time, today’s Taiwanese refuse to see themselves as part of the People’s Republic of China. There is a big discordancy about the question if Taiwan should officially call itself an independent state or if a solution similar to Hong Kong should be followed – with one country, but two systems.
On the Chinese side the aims are conceivable: China is following a long-term strategy trying to gain power and influence in the Pacific Ocean and in the South Chinese Sea. As it can be read in the news it even raises some rocks in the South Chinese Sea trying to turn them into islands in order to have legitimate territory there and be allowed to exploit the resources. Some people also argue that it would never give Taiwan away for strategic reasons. On the other hand not even China can afford to put its head too much above the parapet: Even though the One-China policy is practiced, the western world still remains in good standing with Taiwan. This might be practiced only economically and not politically, but many countries have an interest in preventing any kind of conflict. This is why in the end both countries are trying to maintain the status quo as well as possible.
Cannons towards China: From Juguang Tower you can see the Chinese Mainland
Concerns about national identity
Apart from the difference between the political systems there are other arguments why most Taiwanese are not in favor of an annexation to the Chinese mainland. One significant reason may be that the first ‘mainlander’ generation, which went from China to Taiwan, is dying out and also the military dispute between the two countries is a lot of time ago for many people. Taiwan´s youth was born into a peaceful, democratic society. Therefore nowadays Taiwanese do not see themselves Chinese anymore. On the other hand many people struggle to have a sense of a Taiwanese national identity. There can be no objective way to evaluate that. Therefore I will try to explain this by asking the following questions: How can you call yourself a member of the Taiwanese state or Republic of China, if the government only tries to maintain the status quo, without following a long-term strategy for either official independence or integration? If the country has many cultural influences from aboriginal tribes, Japanese occupation, Chinese mainlanders and South East Asian immigrants, which characteristics make the people ‘Taiwanese’? And last but, not least: Why should you call it a Taiwanese people if this is not officially recognized on an international level? I don´t know if these are the questions, which Taiwanese ask themselves, but within my studies and in many discussions I found out that there are many concerns about national identity, which is why most Taiwanese youths nowadays avoid thinking about them.
Empty streets during the military drill
What can be learned from the trip?
In the end it is once more all about power. Taiwan would probably not be a democracy without support from the United States and its economic development. Without the rise of China´s importance in world politics, Taiwan would maybe be acknowledged as an independent state by the UN. On Kinmen the cruelty of war can be experienced in a very intense way. In the war museum, on the streets, in the tunnels you can still feel its presence. People are advised not to walk on the beach, because there could still be mines. It is not allowed to take pictures on the battlefield, because the photographs could capture ghosts of dead soldiers. And even though their number has been reduced, there can still be seen many soldiers on the streets. Fun fact: As a professor said, in former times soldiers on Kinmen had to swim from Kinmen´s beach to Mainland China, get a cinema ticket and swim back as a kind of ‘military graduation’.
Just having reflected the excursion to Kinmen I was shown that being prepared and practicing for an emergency is still important in Taiwan. Some days ago there was a military drill in my city, practicing a possible air attack. All people had to stay in their homes for 30 minutes. A loud siren was droning though the empty streets. There it was again – the feeling that China is actually very near. The trip to Kinmen was definitely a special one. Not only because of the liquor, the knifes and the amazingly delicious seafood.