Fight or surrender: Taiwan’s generational divide on China’s threats

The San Jiao Fort cafe on Kinmen Island is arguably the best place in Taiwan to watch the threat of invasion from China. Directly overlooking the Chinese city of Xiamen, just 9.6 km away, it is built on top of an old military bunker, decorated with camouflage netting and serves hot and cold drinks.

With Chinese warships lingering off the coast of Taiwan and missiles falling into the sea, the divided loyalties of the cafe’s two owners says a lot about a generational change in Taiwan that has transformed the island’s relationship with China.

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

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With a culture forged through eras of indigenous peoples, hundreds of years of Chinese immigration, Japanese colonial occupation and a harsh period of martial law, Taiwan is not monolithic. For the three decades it has been a democracy, conflicting loyalties have dominated politics, with discussions about whether or not to meet China’s claims to the island split according to age, identity and geography.

In recent years, with increasing warmongering from China, the middle ground has shifted. Now Taiwanese are increasingly identifying as separate from China. For them, China poses an existential threat to a pluralistic and democratic way of life. They don’t consider Taiwan to be part of a long-divided family, as Ting and many older, China-friendly folks describe the relationship.

Even on Taiwan’s closest islands to China, which have historically been more favorable to its neighbor, Ting is a dying breed. In contrast, the older generation, which remembers China’s attacks more sharply decades ago, is the most kind to the nation. Beneficiaries of Chinese economic liberalization and recipients of education that emphasized Chinese ties, they remember the years when China opened up to the world and made many rich, before Xi Jinping became supreme leader. For younger Taiwanese, their vision of China is the vision that Xi has wrought, an illiberal country determined to deny their ability to choose their own leaders.

Although Chiang has similar experiences to Ting – both have spent time in China and have lived much of their lives in Kinmen – he appreciates Taiwan’s openness and feels threatened by Beijing.

“I cherish the freedom and democracy of Taiwan and do not want to be united by others,” he said.

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The prospects, hardened by decades of democratic rule and China’s relentless efforts to isolate Taiwan and, more recently, dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, have prompted the restrained response of many to China’s military exercises in response to the speech by Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. visit. It is what many are used to from China.

Even at the San Jiao Fort cafe, itself built on a piece of historic waste from a not-so-distant past from direct military confrontations, there was indifference to the new threats. Unlike the tanks rusting on the beach below, discarded hardware reminiscent of the days when the two sides exchanged artillery fire, the drills took place far away in the air and out to sea.

On Friday, China sent fighter jets, bombers and more than 10 destroyers and escort ships into areas around Taiwan, with some crossing the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, which separates mainland China from the island. China’s provocative launch of at least 11 missiles on the first day of the exercises, one of which passed over Taiwan, was invisible to most.

On the coast in Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, an archipelago near mainland China, life went on for the most part as normal, despite being only 40 miles from one of the training centers. In addition to Taiwanese troops loading artillery shells into a transport boat, a voluntary beach clean-up continued. Many said it used to be worse.

Hardened by decades of military stalemate, elderly residents eased the tensions. During a standoff between the US and China in 1995 and 1996, before the first direct presidential elections in Taiwan, they recalled how people from smaller islands fled and rushed to banks to cash in their savings during Chinese military actions.

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

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

She remembers little of previous military exercises during the Taiwan Third Strait Crisis, as the standoff has come to be called. Instead, she said Chinese sand dredgers, which have recently flooded the seas near the islands, were a more palpable sign of China’s aggression.

Now she takes a critical look at China’s authoritarianism. While her mother believes economic growth should come first and admires the new buildings that have sprung up on nearby Chinese islands, Chang said freedom and democracy are paramount.

“Sun Yat-sen, our founder, took so long to win the revolution to get us out of the dictatorship, why should we return?” she said.

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, 26, a consultant in the central city of Changhua, said that along with democratic values, the constant threat of attack is increasingly ingrained in her generation’s worldview.

With the current tensions, many from outside Taiwan seemed to expect Taiwanese to stockpile food “hysterically” and make evacuation plans, Fang said, adding that she was offended by the perception.

“Taiwanese people appearing calm in the face of mounting tension is not due to ignorance or naivety, but because this is accepted – even internalized – as part of being Taiwanese,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that the recent military stance from China has led her to take the prospect of an attack more seriously. If the Taiwan Strait becomes a battlefield, Fang said she would send her parents to safety, then stay and fight, although she admitted taking up arms may not be the most effective way for her to contribute. .

A handful of people on the Taiwanese islands near China have glimpsed the drills. About Kinmen, Chiu Yi-hsuan, 39, who runs an independent bookstore, said he felt a shock wave on Thursday.

“At first I thought it was a thunderstorm, but then I realized it wasn’t,” she said.

Yet she was unfazed.

“This reminds me of my childhood memories of dodging bombs,” she said, adding that the current threats were not a big deal compared to the past.

To the north, on the island chain of Matsu, Tsai Hao-min, 16, a high school student, said he heard an explosive sound and saw a brief flash of light. He showed a photo he took with his phone of two parallel contrails rising from the coast of China.

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

It is important to his primary form of political engagement, making memes to troll the Chinese Communist Party and Xi online.

In response to rising tensions with China, he created a meme from images from the British sitcom ‘Mr. Bean,” showing the titular character on his watch and falling asleep. Above them he added his own message: “So is the party going to attack?” referring to the Chinese Communist Party with a derogatory nickname.

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

“The two rockets produced beautiful pictures. If they have that much money, why don’t they shoot more,” he said.

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