Even China’s Closest Supporters in Taiwan Are Turning Wary

On the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, just a few miles off China, residents are losing their admiration for Beijing  

(Bloomberg) — Kinmen is close enough to China that the residents of this small group of islands have been able to watch with the naked eye the ascendance of an economic giant next door.

“Have you seen the buildings in Xiamen?” asks Li Wen-liang, Kinmen’s deputy county commissioner as he waves a hand toward the Chinese metropolis sitting across a sliver of water that is at its narrowest just over a mile wide. “They weren’t there a decade ago.”

Kinmen is Taiwan’s closest outpost to China. As the front line in the civil war between the Chinese Communists and the retreating Nationalists, it endured decades of bombardment from the People’s Liberation Army. It was largely cut off from the rest of the world from the 1950s until the early 1990s, administered under strict military protocol, making it off limits to pretty much everyone except residents and the military. Any Chinese coming ashore, even fishermen who accidentally ran aground, were shot on sight. 

Despite the decades of hostility, things have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Since travel, business and communication between Kinmen and China were permitted in 2001, economic ties have flourished. Today, Kinmen is the part of Taiwan where local support for greater integration with China has typically been the strongest.

In a sign of how close the two sides are now, Kinmen has one of the highest rates of cross-strait marriages in Taiwan. Kinmen also gets around three-quarters of its water piped in from Fujian province, and there’s a proposal for it to obtain electricity from China as well. It’s common for people in the county to own homes in Kinmen, the Taiwanese mainland and in China.    The flow of businesspeople and tourists, plus the island’s famed kaoliang liquor, profits from which help fund local schools and free public transportation, have made Kinmen one of Taiwan’s most affluent areas. The median income in Kinmen ranks among the highest in Taiwan, behind only the Matsu Islands, the chipmaking hub of Hsinchu and the capital, Taipei City, according to Finance Ministry data.

But even with these benefits, attitudes in Kinmen have been changing. Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, which has long been wary of closer ties with Beijing, has seen its support jump in each of the last two presidential elections. If the DPP has more success in the upcoming election in January next year, it would underline how sharply affections for China, even in the Taiwanese county that has benefited the most from Beijing’s largess, is waning.

The shifting attitudes reflect a generational change, according to Max Yu, a retired Taiwanese general and former dean of the island’s National Defense University. For the younger residents of Kinmen who haven’t experienced it, war isn’t as strong a deterrent, while freedom and democracy are more important to them, he said. “That makes them tend to reject China and unification.”

If Yu is right, it suggests that trying to convince Taiwan’s population to accept Beijing’s rule — something China has pledged to do even if by force — will become increasingly difficult. And given that the US has long been the guarantor of Taiwan’s security, it’d also imply that what is already one of the world’s most-dangerous geopolitical flash points will remain so for some time.For now, in spite of the DPP’s gains, Kinmen’s voters are still largely loyal to the Kuomintang, Taiwan’s main opposition party. The KMT, which advocates for eventual unification with China, won almost 75% of the vote in Kinmen in the last presidential election in 2020. The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, who won reelection as president that year, carried slightly less than 22%. 

Still, that 22% represented an almost three-fold increase from the DPP’s results in 2012, when Tsai was also the party’s candidate for president. The 75% the KMT won in 2022 was also noticeably less commanding than the 89%, 95% and 94% victories it scored in Kinmen in the previous three votes.

Ask the residents of Kinmen why the DPP performed so well in the last election and there is a common response. “It’s because of what happened in Hong Kong,” said Li, the deputy county commissioner who favors closer ties with China. “Kinmen people may not be verbal about it, but when there’s a chance to express ourselves, we do.”

What happened was an unprecedented wave of sometimes violent protest that roiled Hong Kong in 2019. The key issue fueling the protesters was their belief that Beijing was seeking to roll back civil liberties guaranteed under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, an agreement struck as part of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 that the city wouldn’t be governed like the mainland for at least 50 years.

Making the demonstrations even more impactful in Taiwan was the fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping had months earlier in January 2019 forcefully reiterated Beijing’s demand for the island to accept unification under the “One Country, Two Systems ” framework.

One wall of deputy country commissioner Li’s office is covered in an enormous map of Kinmen and China’s southeast coast, which he uses to point out, with the aid of a laser pen, the many projects linking the two sides. One of the more contentious proposals is to build a bridge linking Kinmen with Xiamen.

The DPP, whose candidate for president Lai Ching-te has led the polls throughout the last few months, opposes the idea, warning it poses a risk to Taiwan’s security.

When the KMT’s candidate, Hou Yu-ih, was asked if he’d support the bridge, he responded by saying that local governments should have the right to make decisions based on local needs. Hou has actually proposed turning Kinmen into a cross-strait economic zone to facilitate doing business with China. 

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Yet when Beijing rolled out a plan earlier this month to foster closer economic integration between Fujian and Taiwan — including “further optimizing and intensify passenger and freight routes” between Kinmen and China — the four presidential candidates largely ignored it. Taiwan’s government offered a harsh assessment, saying that China’s use of economic enticement to convince Taiwanese to accept its leadership “is completely wishful thinking.”

Wang Ling runs a guesthouse and a souvenir shop specializing in locally made goods and snacks in the island’s main town of Jincheng. She acknowledges that many people in Kinmen still feel they are Chinese rather than Taiwanese and that her island is in many ways inextricably linked to China, both through its proximity and a complex past.“We’re very close to Xiamen so it’s inevitable that we interact, but it should be as equals, like European Union countries,” she said. “But apparently our big neighbor doesn’t think like that so we’re not communicating as country to country and that’s not ideal.”

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