Chen Wen-chin, head of the fishermen association in Keelung
Foto: An Rong Xu / DER SPIEGEL
Beijing’s tone toward Taiwan is becoming increasingly aggressive, and most of those living on the island are unprepared for a war against its oversized neighbor. Some, though, are trying to change that.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Katharina Graça Peters in Taipei
The waves from the typhoon crash into the port of Keelung as gusts of wind tug on Chen Wen-chin’s jacket. His gray hair wet from the rain, he points to the ships bobbing in the waves at the quay. A number of fishermen will soon be heading out to sea without knowing if they will be able sell their merchandise. The storm is the least of Chen’s worries.
Keelung is located in the northeast of Taiwan. In the flower-decorated temples, seafarers pray for a bountiful catch. Chen is extremely familiar with the waters here, having bought his first boat when he was in his early 20s. Now, at age 59, he is head of the city’s association of fishermen, and he has a problem.
The season for hairtail fish will soon start, the coveted predatory fish. Last year, around 80 percent of the catch went to China, says Chen – who has now sought shelter from the elements in a port warehouse – and there were 13 containers at the port each day ready to haul the fish away.
But recently, China’s government banned the import of hairtail fish, along with hundreds of other Taiwanese products. Many here believe it is an act of political revenge. “Who is supposed to buy the fish?” Chen asks. “The fishermen don’t understand why they have become the plaything of politics.”
The Taiwan conflict has intensified in recent months. Chinese leadership is openly threatening the island nation, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.
Following the visit of outgoing U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to the capital of Taipei in August, Beijing responded with economic sanctions and military exercises at sea, with the Chinese navy coming closer to the coast of Taiwan than ever before. Almost daily, drones from the mainland fly across the Taiwan Strait, Chinese warplanes buzz past or warships approach the coast. China is not only Taiwan’s largest trading partner, it is also the country’s greatest threat.
With its aggressive posturing, China is also laying down the gauntlet to the United States, which has long been the most dominant power in the Pacific and which supports Taiwan politically and militarily. On the sidelines of the recent G-20 summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned U.S. President Joe Biden to avoid meddling in the domestic affairs of his country. “Reunification” with Taiwan, Xi said, was the Chinese people’s wish.
Domestically, Xi’s message has been even less guarded. If necessary, he said at the Communist Party Congress in October, the reintegration of Taiwan must be pushed through with force. In his thinking, China’s “national rejuvenation” must include Taiwan. And if they don’t want to be part of it, they’ll have to be forced.
Many Taiwanese react to such threats with the stoicism of a people that has already lived through multiple crises. In their day-to-day lives, the people of Taiwan don’t let the political tensions get to them. Office workers in Taipei head to work on the subway, cooks prepare their dishes as always. “Where are we supposed to go? We’re an island,” says one young woman. “If we ever horde food, then we do so for holiday celebrations.”
“The most dangerous place on Earth,” is how the British newsmagazine The Economist recently described Taiwan, but on a recent visit, it didn’t feel particularly threatening. On a bike ride around the presidential palace in Taipei, you’ll see more palm trees than soldiers. But a growing uneasiness can also be felt. Suddenly, conversations more often include the question: “Do you think there will be war?”
The fears were triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but intensified by China’s military maneuvering. The private company Kuma Academy provides training in such disciplines as seeking shelter in times of war and applying bandages to wounds – and their courses are fuller than ever. Visa agencies, meanwhile, have been receiving an increased number of queries since the summer regarding how to obtain foreign passports.
Nobody knows, though, what the near future might bring, with views diverging even within families. There are older people like fisherman Chen Wen-chin, who believe there will be a peaceful settlement. In the evening, he marches through a restaurant where Taiwanese captains eat with their Chinese crews as the typhoon continues raging outside. “The rest of the world might think that we are living in fear. But life goes on,” he says over the noise of the restaurant. Couples also have arguments, he says. “We are like a family on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
Younger Taiwanese often take a different view. They don’t have the same close ties to the Chinese mainland as their grandparents. And that has a lot to do with the establishment of modern-day Taiwan, which began with a civil war.
The Origins of a Conflict
After the communists took over the Chinese capital of Beijing in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, around 2 million people fled from mainland China to Taiwan. They were following the defeated army of the Kuomintang, commanded by Chiang Kai-shek. He established a nationalist dictatorship in Taiwan which stood in opposition to the communists. Both of them claimed to represent all of China. It was only in the 1980s that democracy began to gain a foothold in Taiwan.
Many younger Taiwanese have no great emotional ties to China, in contrast to their grandparents, who spent their childhood years there. And in contrast to their parents, who grew up in the authoritarian system established by Chiang Kai-shek, they only know their country as a flourishing democracy.
“I love my homeland,” says Huang Ying-wei, and it isn’t difficult to believe him, given the elan with which he talks about freedom and civil rights. Huang is a 22-year-old student of sociology who wears a hairband to keep his long, black hair out of his face. When thinking, his gaze turns to the subtropical forest growing outside the windows of the university library. “China is China, and Taiwan is Taiwan.”
There are few countries in Asia that are as progressive as Taiwan. Women here are doing better than in neighboring countries and the number of seats they hold in parliament is higher. Same-sex couples were granted marriage rights in 2019. In October, the largest pride parade in eastern Asia made its way through the streets of Taipei. The fact that such an exemplary democracy isn’t allowed to be a member of the United Nations – out of fear of upsetting authoritarian China – is a modern-day tragedy.
The brutal approach of the security forces against pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong in 2019 got the attention of Huang and his friends. “If we allow China to occupy Taiwan,” says Huang, “they will do the same thing here as in Hong Kong. Then, we wouldn’t be able to openly express our opinions any longer.”
Huang is convinced that Taiwan and China don’t belong together, even though his grandfather fought for the Kuomintang and sees things quite differently. As a teenager, Huang joined an activist group called World United Formosans for Independence. Currently, they are urging local politicians to pledge that they will never capitulate to the People’s Republic of China.
Just what China means when it talks about the integration of Taiwan into the Chinese “motherland” was made clear by China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, in a recent interview – in comments that someone like Huang could only hear as a threat. Following “reunification,” Lu Shaye said, the Taiwanese population would be “reeducated.” Huang no longer travels to China out of fear that he might be arrested.
For him, a Taiwanese declaration of independence is the next logical step. But it’s all quite a bit more complicated than it sounds. Which is why Huang again gazes out the window when asked if Taiwan really should formally declare independence, a move the country has thus far not dared make. He then says: “Ideally, yes.” He hesitates, because he knows what that would mean: war with China. For Beijing, that step would be completely unacceptable.
Many observers believe the Chinese military would begin with a sea and air blockade of Taiwan. Hundreds of ships, submarines and airplanes could completely cut off the island’s ports and airports. It would be a kind of siege strategy. U.S. experts believe 2027 could be the critical year, because by then, China will have largely completed the modernization of its military. “Of course I’m afraid of an attack,” says Huang, “but I’m even more afraid of losing our freedom.”
It is considered a sure thing that any attack would come with cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. “They will try to unsettle us, to get us to the point that we literally no longer believe what we see,” is how Taiwanese military researcher Ying Yu Lin described it in an interview with DER SPIEGEL.
Almost every day, the 14 members of the Taiwan FactCheck Center see how Taiwanese citizens are being bombarded with targeted rumors. Employees like the 29-year-old Wu Jhong-an are intent on revealing propaganda and lies for what they are. It is her way of defending Taiwan’s freedom. The team regularly holds seminars to teach as many Taiwanese as possible how to identify fake news.
At the morning editorial meeting, fact-checkers discuss false reports that are circulating and how to debunk them, including Beijing’s latest propaganda ploys.
Wu discovered a video circulating on the messenger service Line. In the 1:20-minute video, soldiers can be seen goose-stepping along with air raids from above. If China attacks Taiwan, the narrator intones, “stay home and wait for liberation. Our weapons are so precise that it will be quick.” To make the message sink in, a line of text reads: “We will not harm you. We are one family.” The video says they will only look for Tsai Ing-wen, the Taiwanese president.
Observers believe the videos are part of a broader campaign. As Chinese drones and fighter jets circle above, they flood the island with disinformation and reunification propaganda to unsettle the population.
Wu will later trace the video to an account belonging to the Chinese TikTok sister company Douyin, which has 220,000 followers. She also believes that the threat is growing and that the images could become reality sooner than expected. “I used to think it would only be the next generation that would experience conflict,” she says. “But since the Russian attack on Ukraine, I’ve been wondering: Is it possible that it might affect me?”
“We Aren’t Prepared at All”
Ho Cheng-hui, civilian defense specialist
She doesn’t know the whereabouts of any air raid shelters located near her. “I only know where to go to be safe from a typhoon,” she says.
For Ho Cheng-hui, this is precisely Taiwan’s biggest problem. “We aren’t prepared at all. People don’t even know where they should go to seek shelter.” Passersby hurry past him into Taipei’s Zhongshan subway station, folding up their umbrellas. No one pays attention to the small yellow sign in the entrance. Air raid shelter, it says, with space for 19,596 people.
Ho is a stocky man of 50 who has made it his mission to train his compatriots for the worst-case scenario. Many Taiwanese believed they wouldn’t be in danger, he says. But Ho disagrees.
He slowly descends the steps into the station, and a network of corridors spreads out before him, leading to various subway lines. Ho makes a large arc with his arms. He says the station is actually ideal for providing shelter. “But no water or food is stored here,” he says. “What would people drink and eat in an emergency? It is unsuitable as an air raid shelter.”
Ho pushes his mask back over his mouth, having removed it for a photo. It is blue and yellow, the Ukrainian national colors. The Russian invasion demonstrated to Ho not only how unexpectedly an attack can come, but also that how the population reacts is important.
Since the invasion, enrollment in civil defense classes has increased at Kuma Academy, which Ho founded together with a colleague. Around 1,000 people are on the waiting list. A fierce looking bear in Kuma Academy’s logo is meant to symbolize the determination of the Taiwanese people.
They hold four to five workshops a month and the trainers are nurses, firefighters and former soldiers. Participants learn the basics of modern warfare and how to recognize propaganda. They are trained in first aid, and they learn about what to pack for emergencies. Their app also includes a checklist: water, canned food, instant rice and noodles, for example. The app also reminds users of the expiration date.
Three million civilians are expected to be trained at Kuma Academy over the next three years. The goal is for citizens to learn how to protect themselves, Ho says. That they resist and make the war as painful as possible for China.
Ho and many others aren’t concerned with whether the U.S. would supply weapons or send aircraft carriers in the event of a Chinese attack.
For them, it’s about the Taiwanese defending what they have created themselves: democracy.