Once a Cold War flashpoint, a part of Taiwan embraces China's pull

A file photo of a woman digging for clams amid old tank obstacles on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, with the skyline of the Chinese city of Xiamen seen in the background, on Oct 20, 2017.
A file photo of a woman digging for clams amid old tank obstacles on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, with the skyline of the Chinese city of Xiamen seen in the background, on Oct 20, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KINMEN COUNTY, TAIWAN (NYTIMES) - The islands of Kinmen County, and the Nationalist troops stationed there, withstood artillery shelling from China long after the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war.

Today, relations between China and Kinmen, just miles apart, are very different indeed.

Kinmen, about twice the size of Manhattan, has been governed from Taiwan since the defeated Nationalists fled China for the islands in 1949. But Taiwan's main island is 140 miles (225km) away, while China looms visibly in the near distance.

That distance is narrowing - both literally and figuratively.

A new airport for the Chinese city of Xiamen is being built just north of Kinmen, on an island 3 miles away, and land reclamation for that project will bring Chinese territory almost a mile closer.

A proposed bridge to the Xiamen airport from Kinmen would essentially eliminate the remaining gap.

Last month, China began supplying Kinmen with drinking water through a new 10-mile pipeline. And Kinmen will probably soon get cheaper electricity from its onetime enemy.


A file photo of a Chinese tourist looking back toward Xiamen from a Kinmen beach in Taiwan, on Oct 20, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The Aug 5 ceremony to open the pipeline underscored how much Kinmen, home to about 130,000 people, has been pulled into the orbit of China, whose ruling Communist Party has never controlled Taiwan and wants to annex it.

Liu Jieyi, director of Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, used his speech at the ceremony on the island to demand that self-governing, democratic Taiwan accept the "One China" policy, which declares that Taiwan and China are part of the same country.

"The vast populace of Taiwan will certainly make the correct choice," Liu said.

He almost certainly would not have made such a speech on Taiwan's main island, where suspicion of China runs high. When Liu's predecessor toured Taiwan in 2014, he was met with protests in multiple cities and his car was splashed with paint.

Wang Ting-yu, a Taiwanese lawmaker with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), said the freedom and democracy enjoyed in Kinmen made it unlikely that its residents would want to be part of authoritarian China.

But he said China's ruling Communist Party had had some success on the island with so-called United Front tactics, under which it works with non-communist groups to achieve its goals.

"As far as bringing Kinmen closer to China, I'd say at present it still looks doubtful," Wang said, "but you can't deny that the resources China has invested in United Front work in Kinmen have had a certain effect."

Chen Fu-hai, the magistrate of Kinmen County, who shared the stage with Liu at the pipeline ceremony, said he was not concerned that the water supply would give China political leverage.

"I think China and Taiwan should have more interaction," he said in an interview.

The new pipeline will provide Kinmen with 30 per cent of its tap water, making up for strains on water supplies from growing Chinese tourism, environmental factors and the two sorghum liquor distilleries that provide most of the county's tax revenue.

On a recent hot afternoon at Kinmen's Tianpo Reservoir, where the pipeline from China empties, Hong Yanming, a Kinmen resident, called the new water connection a "joyous occasion for both sides of the Taiwan Strait." She was taking photos with friends and family visiting from China.

Hong moved to Kinmen from China 24 years ago after marrying a local man. She is one of a few thousand Chinese women to have married Kinmenese men in the last three decades, one aspect of the growing ties between Kinmen and China. Many Kinmenese own property or do business in China.

She said her home village, Weitou, was next to the lake that is now feeding the reservoir here. "There are about 40 women from Weitou village here in Kinmen," she said. "I'm so happy - now we can all drink water from our hometown."

As in mainland Taiwan, identity can be a complicated question for people born in Kinmen. The older generation tends to identify more as Chinese than Taiwanese, while younger people often view China's growing influence warily.

The island, along with adjacent Lesser Kinmen, was shelled sporadically by China from the 1950s through the late 1970s. It was heavily militarised and cut off even from mainland Taiwan until 1992, when martial law on Kinmen ended - five years later than in the rest of Taiwan - and residents participated in their first local elections.


A file photo of tourists at a museum in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Oct 20, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Kinmen, unlike mainland Taiwan, did not spend half a century as a Japanese colony; it was a Chinese territory for most of that time. Such stark differences in their experiences, as well as the distance between the islands, have made the relationship awkward.

Tourists visiting Kinmen from mainland Taiwan might find it odd to hear a resident speak of "going to Taiwan" for school or work, implying that Kinmen isn't part of Taiwan.

Many Kinmenese say they have been abandoned by Taipei, Taiwan's capital, since the arrival of democracy.

Chen, an independent politician who is Kinmen's first elected magistrate not to be a member of the Nationalists, or Kuomintang, said none of Taiwan's elected presidents had paid enough attention to the county's needs.

After Kinmen's demilitarisation in 1992, he said, "we lacked water, we lacked electricity and we lacked roads - we had nothing."

Economically, he said, Kinmen has largely had to fend for itself since then, relying primarily on sorghum liquor sales and, more recently, Chinese tourism. Ferry services to mainland China began in 2001, and Kinmen's view of its giant neighbor has been softening since then.

"Right now, actually, I see the mainland as also being quite democratic, at least what I've seen in Xiamen," Chen said of the booming Chinese city nearby. Asked to clarify that, he said he meant that the local government departments he'd met with had been "quite open."

Lauren Dickey, a researcher at King's College London who specialises in Beijing-Taiwan relations, said China's pull on Kinmen was only natural.

"If the local government on Kinmen is not finding the central government in Taipei to be meeting its needs, then it is perhaps only logical that the Kinmen government would reach out to the geographically closest resources to ensure needs are met," she said.

In the shadow of Xiamen's urban buzz, much of Kinmen's population has been hollowed out, with young people opting to move to the Taiwanese mainland or to China. Most of its photogenic traditional villages are only about one-third occupied, with many of the old courtyard homes in disrepair.

Some young people who have stayed say the political climate has changed.

Wang Ting-chi returned to Kinmen after six years in New York and founded a company, Local Methodology, to provide a nongovernmental platform for promoting Kinmen culture.

She said she was concerned that Kinmenese felt like "orphans" because of the distance from Taiwan's main island, and that they might be tempted by overtures from an increasingly powerful China.

People who express concerns about Chinese influence, Wang said, are often dismissed as naive. "I think Kinmen is going off on its own to establish relations with China," she said.