as Nancy Pelosi She set off on her historic visit to Taiwan this week, and videos began circulating on Chinese social media showing convoys of armored vehicles moving along beaches in the port city of Xiamen, on China’s southeast coast.
Less than 5 kilometers away, on Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, life continued 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 took graduation photos, and buses of tourists continued to make their way around attractions on the islands.
Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Kinmen, also known as Quemoy. Ancient military sites, relics from when the islands were the front line of the Cold War China And Taiwan, landscape trash. Giant speakers on the coast that once blasted propaganda across the sea are now playing soft music.
One of the favorite stops for visitors is Wu Tseng-dong’s workshop. Wu has been making knives for decades, and continues his father’s business. “Initially our main customers were soldiers, but once the tourism industry developed, we really started earning a living,” he says.
All of Wu’s knives are made from used artillery shells.
On August 23, 1958, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a ferocious artillery bombardment of Kinmen that lasted somewhat for more than 20 years. Many people in Kinmen can vividly remember living under constant bombardment – a fact that distinguishes the people of Kinmen from most Taiwanese.
“Everyone who lived here was killed, family and friends. We had to dig our own air raid shelters. If you didn’t, there would be nowhere to hide when the shells fell.”
This disparate legacy and history—unlike Taiwan itself, the Kinmen for hundreds of years were more or less fully under Chinese rule—means that few in Kinmen would refer to themselves as “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 and independent country.
The independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) led by President Tsai Ing-wen has ruled Taiwan for the past six years, but politics on Kinmen is dominated by the main opposition Kuomintang, which favors closer ties with China. The islands’ representative in Taiwan’s legislature, Chen Yu-jen of the Kuomintang, said her constituents are unhappy with Tsai’s policies toward China, citing a lack of communication between the two sides as one of the reasons for the current crisis.
While Chen welcomed Pelosi’s visit, she said it was not worth the damage done to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing. But she says the people in Kinmen did not care about Chinese military maneuvers: “There is no reason for them to attack the Kinmen. Their target is Taiwan. If Taiwan falls, Kinmen will follow.”
Her view is that of Samuel Hoy, a military historian who lives in Taichung, central Taiwan.
Kinmen used to be very important to the defense of Taiwan. The Chinese Communists had to take Kinmen for any chance of a successful invasion. But now, the People’s Liberation Army has many aircraft carriers and ballistic missiles to directly attack Taipei and other major cities. 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 find work elsewhere in Taiwan, and few can imagine living under the authoritarian regime of the communist mainland. In the 2020 elections, Tsai’s share of the vote in Kinmen grew by 57% after Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
Nina Hong grew up moving 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 both sides of the Taiwan Strait often talk about each other. Pelosi’s visit has pushed people to even more extremes. It helped more people around the world see Taiwan, but it didn’t fit [Taiwan’s international isolation]. “
At Wu’s workshop, he displays a newly forged blade while explaining to the audience from grandparents to young children how people on the island can tell by the sound of a cannonball where it will land.
“I don’t think there will be a war,” he says. But since the epidemic, exchanges between Taiwan and mainland China have stopped. I think it had a negative impact on the relationship.”
When asked if he blames Beijing for taking military action after Pelosi’s visit, Wu hesitated. “This is a policy,” he says, “not something that ordinary people like us can control.” “All we hope for is peace.”
It’s a sentiment shared by 83-year-old Cheng Ching Lee, who heads the local Association of War Veterans of the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. “People today have no idea what we went through,” he says. “War is heartless. Peace is priceless.”
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