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Will Kinmen, Taiwan’s Frontline, Become the Next Crimea?

Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

Outside a grocery store in Kinmen’s Creekside Village, an old black dog wags its tail for visitors. The setting sun falls on obscured Western-style houses out back, and the faint letters “ANTI-COMMUNISM WILL SUCCEED” (反共立成) on the wall can just barely be made out. 

The long-abandoned building reveals a forgotten past; this is ‘The Western Company’, a private enterprise used as a cover for cooperation between the CIA and the Kuomintang (KMT) government of Chiang Kai-Shek in the Korean War era (from 1951 to 1955). It was a base for collecting intelligence on the People’s Liberation Army, as well as the place where the guerilla warfare along China’s southeast coast was organized.

Ever since 1949, when the Chinese Civil War between the KMT and Chinese communist party (CCP) ended with the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime followed by a relocation to Taiwan, the CCP has had designs to “unify” Taiwan, putting forth its view that Taiwan is a “renegade island” that “must be absorbed into the motherland,” even though the People’s Republic of China has never governed Taiwan. At the nearest point, Kinmen, off the Chinese coastal province of Fujian, is less than two kilometers from Xiamen. During the Cold War, caught between the geopolitical considerations of Taiwan, China, and the U.S., Kinmen became a frontline for cross-strait relations as well as an international anti-communism hotspot.

Click to view on Google Map: Satellite image of Kinmen and Taiwan.

View of Kinmen. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

View of Kinmen. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

This island of granite, where LIFE magazine and New York Times correspondents were once stationed, was once known as the ‘West Berlin of East Asia.’ It never surrendered despite twenty-one years of constant shelling by China. However, since becoming a pilot city for the ‘Three Links’ (direct transport, mail, and communications) across the Taiwan Strait in 2001, in less than 20 years, Kinmen has gone from being a base for anti-communist opposition, to the most pro-Beijing county in Taiwan. 

"Since Xi Jinping became the president of China in 2013, Taiwan with its 23 million people and democratic government has become a crucial part of Xi’s “Chinese Dream” blueprint. Therefore, Kinmen has become a beachhead for China’s “unification” efforts, which it calls the “Great goal of reunification.”

Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

On January 2 of this year, Xi delivered a speech during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the ‘Message to Compatriots in Taiwan.’ In addition to raising a “One country, Two systems Taiwan Version” for the first time, he explicitly mentioned Kinmen, stressing full support for expediting the establishment of the “New Four Links” — namely electricity, natural gas, water, and bridges— on the heels of Kinmen importing water from Fujian province since last year. In March, during the second session of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Xi made another reference to “New Four Links” with Kinmen.

Beijing's First Stop for Expediting 'Unification'

“Over the last 20 years, Kinmen and China have engaged in frequent interaction, and major changes have taken place in people’s mindsets. One could say that the united front works efforts have been quite successful,” said Weng Ming-Chen, director of Legislator Chen Yu-chen’s office.

The roots of “United Front Work” can be traced to Mao Zedong’s edict to “Ally with lesser enemies to attack principal enemies”, and other soft tactics as propaganda and making “friendships” to achieve one’s aims. This remains the CCP’s fundamental guideline for dealing with the outside world. And “United Front Work” has special significance for Taiwan— namely the “War for Unification 統戰.” The “One country, two systems” currently at the center of the controversy in Hong Kong was an experiment of the system designed by Deng Xiaoping to “unify” Taiwan.

Weng Ming-chen observed that, over seventy years of confrontation between Taiwan and China, Kinmen endured four decades of intensive militarization. A hundred thousand soldiers were stationed on the small 150-square-kilometer island at its peak. During this time, the people of Kinmen were subjected to anti-communist educational training to prevent CCP infiltration, given China’s main tactic toward Kinmen of penetration with spies. However, following the establishment of the “Little Three Links” in 2001, united front work took on the “legitimate status” of “Cross-strait Exchanges”, extending to the operation of influential social and family heritage organizations. In recent years, such efforts have expanded into religious temples and village and town chiefs, deeply impacting popular sentiment across Kinmen.

But Kinmen serves as a springboard for China’s ambitions toward Taiwan in another aspect.

The Kinmen Bridge will connect Greater Kinmen Island and Lieyu Island. Yet the Kinmenese prefer a bridge that can connect Greater Kinmen with Xiamen. To the Kinmenese, are the “New Four Links” the only solution? Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

The Kinmen Bridge will connect Greater Kinmen Island and Lieyu Island. Yet the Kinmenese prefer a bridge that can connect Greater Kinmen with Xiamen. To the Kinmenese, are the “New Four Links” the only solution? Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

Since the heightening of cross-strait tensions following President Tsai Ing-Wen’s election in 2016, Chinese officials have come to Taiwan on business, agricultural, and religious exchanges in various unofficial capacities through Kinmen and its loose border. “The number of Chinese officials coming to Taiwan has not lessened; it’s just that ‘Taiwan work’ has gone underground,” remarked Weng.

An informed source indicates that a batch of Chinese officials visits each week, usually staying for three days to meet on Kinmen for discussions with pro-Beijing groups’ work to expedite “unification.” “Kinmen’s role isn’t big when Cross-strait relations are smooth, as Chinese officials travel directly to Taiwan proper. But now that the relations have worsened, Kinmen serves as a convenient intermediate point, which is neither sensitive nor provokes protest.”

Yesterday’s frontline, however, is no longer fortified. On the ground in Kinmen, we found that a prolonged project propaganda of ‘One country, two systems’ had already begun to take shape in early 2018 in Kinmen. Moreover, it is being conducted on multiple fronts, using Taiwanese businesspeople as proxies.

One front is comprised of a small party ostensibly hailing from Taiwan proper, the ‘For Public Good Party’ (FPGP). This party’s efforts are concentrated on working Chinese-born spouses and grassroots elected officials, deploying itself via local groups, political parties, public opinion polls, academic discussions, and elections in the attempt to prime the pump for holding a referendum on making Kinmen an ‘Cross-strait Peace Experimental Zone.’

The FPGP can trace its roots back to a Chinese “benevolent organization” known as “Hong Men” established as a political party in San Francisco during the 1920s. The FPGP is one of the eight major ‘democratic’ political party factions officially recognized by the Chinese Communist Party. The stated mission of the Taiwan FPGP is to “devote efforts towards bringing about peaceful Cross-strait unification.” Since Taiwanese businessman Chen Po-Kuang took over as party chairman in late 2015, the party has been active across various pro-Beijing organizations.

In mid-2018, the FPGP reached out to a veteran Kuomintang (KMT) municipal councilor on Kinmen, exploiting tensions within the KMT to absorb thirty-three grassroots-level elected representatives who had withdrawn their KMT membership, including village and town chiefs, and even the deputy municipal council speaker. 

The FPGP became Kinmen’s second-largest party in less than a year.

FPGP’s Kinmen Efforts Aimed Not at Elections, But a Public Referendum

Shortly after local elections in Taiwan last November, the FPGP released a public opinion poll in December, claiming that 80 percent of Kinmen people “wish to become an ‘Cross-Strait Peace Experimental Zone’.” At a late April seminar organized in Kinmen University, FPGP Chairman Chen Po-kuang asserted that his party would work in accordance with “popular will” to advocate for a referendum in Kinmen.

“My thoughts are, why not let Fujian province handle Kinmen’s development, and let the Taiwanese public see the benefits of ‘unification’?” remarked Chen Po-kuang during an exclusive interview in July. Unable to provide further policy details, such as what would happen to Kinmen’s administrative jurisdiction under Fujian province’s governance, or whether elections would still be held, Chen simply kept reiterating the phrase, “Anyway, Kinmen needs peaceful development.”

Chen verified that his party was planning to promote a referendum at the same time as next year’s Taiwan presidential and legislative elections. However, a series of national security laws spearheaded by the pro-independence ruling party, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators, sent the Kinmen referendum back to the drawing board. 

Chen further frankly stated that, based on years of dealing with Beijing officials, he gathered that the combined factors of the U.S.-China trade war and Tsai Ing-Wen’s administration have increased pressure on Beijing to “unify” Taiwan, saying, “Although ‘unification’ is an inevitable trend along the long flowing river of Chinese history, sometimes things best not be rushed.”

One source with ties to the FPGP revealed that, in retrospect, it is clear that the FPGP planned all along to prepare the ground in Kinmen. Although the party’s plans to push a referendum failed, its organizational work has never stopped; the FPGP is still deepening its hold on the local grassroots.

On the other hand, many locals observe that thirty-three members holding positions in the FPGP office have joined the party after winning their elections; most of them ran as unaffiliated candidates. Since the FPGP has little name recognition among Kinmen voters, the approach of focusing on Kinmen itself over voters might at first seem quite unusual.

“The political climate in Kinmen is not mature to the extent of having party politics,” said one anonymous observer, indicating that traditional organizations like family guilds and temples are sometimes more influential than political parties in Kinmen. Furthermore, referendums are held on issues rather than party identification. “That is to say, as long as one has control over grassroots operatives, you will be still effective in mobilizing voters even without a party’s reputation,” source added.

CUPP Targets Temples and University Students with ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Propaganda

Another front in China’s strategy is the Kinmen-based Chinese Unification Promotion Party (CUPP). With close ties to Beijing, the party founded by Chang An-le (AKA “the White Wolf”) is notable for its violent underworld image.

One source involved the operations reveals that PRC officials tasked with handling Taiwan affairs are aware that ‘One country, two systems’ has a bad reputation in Taiwan, one made even worse because of the situation in Hong Kong. However, the source claims, the people of Kinmen are largely pro-China due to its geographic location and unique historical context, making it suitable to become a ‘One country, Two systems Experimental Zone.’ Established in late 2016, the CUPP’s Kinmen branch was given the directive from Beijing in 2018 to promote this idea to the people of Kinmen.

During an interview, CUPP Kinmen branch commissioner Chen Yao-de, owner of a noted local snack food business, enthusiastically took out a thin 50-page pamphlet written by the White Wolf on the subject of ‘Peaceful Unification - One country, two systems.’ Chen, in his early 30s, admitted that he used to oppose “unification” because of China’s relative backwards state of development. But after witnessing China’s impressive economic progress, he reversed his position.

“Growing up in democratic Taiwan, of course I want to continue living in freedom and democracy,” Chen, who strongly believes in White Wolf’s idea as the solution for both sides, says, adding, “The best way to peacefully maintain our lifestyle and also take part in China’s development opportunities is the ‘One Country, Two systems Taiwan Version’.”

The young Chen Yao-de’s chief target group is Kinmen University students, with particular attention given to a core of a dozen youth leaders, sponsoring student activities and taking part in temple affairs. Through such approaches as exchange trips for youth leaders to China, and job referrals for graduates, while usually not discussing politics, Chen seeks to cultivate a good image over the long term to foster local acceptance of CUPP’s values.

One source involved with CUPP said, “Everyone’s main orientation is actually same.” To promote Kinmen as a ‘One country, two systems’ showcase for Taiwan, they added, and let Taiwanese people know that Kinmen is doing well because of China’s protection. CUPP’s approach is to change its image and win over support from all levels of Kinmen society, while the For Public Good Party (FPGP) started out by directly absorbing local operatives. “The methods are different, but the goals are aligned.”

Could Kinmen Become the Crimea of East Asia?

In March of 2014, residents of Crimea voted in a referendum on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. Over 96 percent of voters supported independence from Ukraine, followed by eventual membership in the Russian Federation. Although such a referendum was unconstitutional according to Ukrainian law, Russia dispatched military forces to occupy Crimea in the name of protecting its more than 60 percent ethnic Russian population. This prompted pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine to call for a similar referendum.

One possible implication from Crimea is that, as long as popular will was demonstrated through a referendum, Russia had sufficient justification to dispatch military forces. And even if the international community refused to recognize it as such, Crimea was under de facto Russian control, further destabilizing the already-divided Ukrainian political climate.

Back in the day, Chiang Kai-shek stationed over 100,000 forces on Kinmen, partly to keep the U.S. engaged, and manifesting to the world the difference between what he saw as “Free China” and “Red China.” However, the tables have turned in a historical paradox. Reversing Kinmen's crucial role for defending Taiwan in the past, Beijing now regards this faded anti-communist frontline as a united front tool for “unifying” Taiwan.

As Trump blows the horn of the U.S.-China trade war, the world seems to have entered a new Cold War era. As bipartisan attitudes towards China and the Taiwan policy of Washington DC elites shift, the U.S.’s intention to restrain China from the international alliance is becoming increasingly apparent. At a critical position both geographically and politically, Taiwan has naturally once again come under close scrutiny.

However, would the Pro-China people of Kinmen embrace Beijing’s plan as a tool to promote “unification” with Taiwan? Furthermore, under the prospect of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China, could Kinmen become the first domino to fall?

Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

Image by Amber Lin. Taiwan, 2019.

Successful Economic Psychological Operations

Investigating in the field, we discovered that the majority of people on Kinmen would prefer to maintain the status quo by neither actively seeking nor resisting “unification.” “One country, two systems” or “Unification” remain sensitive terms; however, as long as economic terms are mentioned instead of political ones, and the phrase “Cross-Strait Peace development” is substituted for “unification,” people tend to be much more receptive.

“We Kinmenese will call anyone who gives us milk ‘Mommy’!” exclaims 48-year-old Mr. Yang upon the mention of the referendum. “If Kinmen comes under China’s regime, then Kinmen’s housing prices, land prices, and locals’ incomes will surely be like Hong Kong’s,” he adds. Yang claims that many people of the same mindset believe Kinmen’s future is with China.

Deng Xiaoping, the creator of the “One country, two systems” theory, was also the chief architect of economic reform and opening up in his day, a policy that has yielded tremendous success for Xiamen as a special economic zone (SEZ). Some 40 years down the road, Kinmen - right across from Xiamen - has become increasingly alienated from Taiwan. These feelings of being deprived of opportunities to share in China's prosperity have prompted Xi Jinping to target Kinmen as a special political pilot zone.

Compared with the perceived neglect from Taiwan, China’s warm overtures toward Kinmen make the locals feel cared for. However, Beijing’s “good treatment” of Kinmen is more propaganda than reality.

Effective August 1, Beijing began prohibiting Chinese tourists from independent travel to Taiwan. This set Kinmen locals on edge, fearing that they would be the first victims of the drop in Chinese tourist numbers. The Kinmen County Tourism Department claimed that it would lose over NT$2.5 billion (US$81.5 million) in tourism-related production value, and County Magistrate Yang Cheng-wu flew to Beijing on an urgent mission to ask for a special exception.

The figures indicate, however, that Kinmen’s economy is actually far more reliant on Taiwan than China.

According to the Kinmen Tourism Consumption and Trend Survey Analysis 2018 Annual Report published by the Kinmen County Government, 300,000 individual visits were made to Kinmen by Chinese tourists in 2017, each of whom stayed for an average of two days and one night. These figures were lower than those of Taiwanese travelers, who recorded 380,000 visits, with an average stay of three days and two nights. 

Between 2009 and 2017, the four million visitors from Taiwan amounted to three times the 1.3 million total number of Chinese visitors to Kinmen, while also recording twice the spending amount. That is to say, Taiwanese tourists are the true source of stability for Kinmen’s tourism industry, despite the political factors of cross-strait relations.

Former DPP councilman Chen Tsang-chiang observed that Chinese tourists do not actually spend much in Kinmen. On the contrary, the people of Kinmen prefer to make the half-hour boat trip over to Xiamen on weekends for shopping and tourism.

The Kinmen government’s report also indicates, according to unofficial statistics from the Xiamen government, that at least 4,000 parcels of local real estate have been purchased by Kinmen residents and 60,000 Taiwanese businesspeople residing in Xiamen, amounting to more than NT$10 billion (US$326 million) in capital flow over to China.

Turning to the famous Kinmen Kaoliang liquor, a major source of revenue for Kinmen: According to a 2019 sales report from Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Inc., annual sales average around NT$1.2 billion (US$39 million), of which around 10 percent comes from China, while 90 percent comes from Taiwan.

However, long-term political propaganda has nonetheless implanted the firm belief among the people of Kinmen that China is their salvation.

Michael A. Szonyi, history professor and director of the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, is the author of Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line (note: “Quemoy” is an alternative pronunciation of “Kinmen”). He observes that the mentality of the people of Kinmen can be a window on Taiwan and even the world.

“Although Kinmen is no longer on the geopolitical frontline, it is nevertheless an observation point through which the international community can understand the tensions raised by the rise of China,” he said. “Therefore, in this respect, Kinmen is a critical frontline for the world.”

Szonyi thinks that, although Kinmen, Taiwan, Southeast Asia and indeed the entire world seem to believe that the China market is the one and only economic panacea, it wouldn’t be possible to survive by relying solely on the Chinese market. However, this misapprehension is not easily corrected.

The Closer to China, the Less Freedom of Speech

Many people worry that the closer Kinmen gets to China, the more of an echo chamber it becomes, and less able it is to accommodate diverse voices. 

Several anonymous Kinmen residents revealed that many Pro-Beijing groups in Kinmen such as family guilds, temples, and even the county government have considerable local influence. Along with the close social network on the small island, it all leads to more self-censorship. Effectively, it means that one must keep quiet to maintain a better social relationship for living.

It has even resulted in violence, such as when CUPP members physically assaulted others for their different stance on Taiwan’s status.

“The impact of China’s rise on Kinmen goes beyond politics and economics, as even values such as environmental protection issues, industrial development thinking, and freedom of speech are also influenced,” Professor Szonyi observed. In his view, as a smaller island located even closer to China, Kinmen faces an even greater challenge than does Taiwan.

Szonyi indicated that the situation of Kinmen was historically the result of a balanced power between Taiwan, the U.S. and China. During the Cold War, the U.S. maintained neutrality, while Chiang Kai-shek was unwilling to give up the island, and Mao Zedong had no desire to take it. In fact, technology has transformed the methods of modern warfare, and Beijing only has eyes for Taiwan, not Kinmen. The only reason to take over Kinmen would be to cause a shocking mental effect in Taiwanese society.

How many Kinmen people today even remember the Beishan Broadcasting wall, the north-western point of Kinmen where famous psychological warfare took place, blasting out Teresa Deng’s propaganda messages day after day? The sweet idol adored by the Chinese-speaking world, Deng’s hit song “Tian Mi Mi甜蜜蜜(Sweetness)” boomed out of the gigantic wall of speakers aimed across the water at Xiamen. She softly urged ‘mainland compatriots’:

“I’m delighted to stand today on the frontline of the motherland. I feel so happy and blessed; I hope that our mainland compatriots can have the same democracy and freedom that we have…”

On the edge of windy cliffs, that historical antagonism has today been flip-flopped. While old Deng’s (Xiaoping) ‘One country, two systems’ has been lingering over Kinmen, little Deng’s (Theresa) mellifluous voice still travels through the ages: “People only have opportunities to achieve individual ideals under the freedom and democracy. I wish everyone a good health, and Long Live Democracy!”

OpView contributed social big database management system, Fang Jun-zhu contributed data analysis.