In Taiwan, Friends Are Starting to Turn Against Each Other
TAITUNG, Taiwan — A friend of mine in Taipei recently wrote a passionate Facebook post urging young people in Taiwan to prepare for war with China. The only way to respond to Chinese threats to seize the island was, he argued, with strength; anything else was a delusion. Despite being in his 60s, he vowed to take up arms if necessary.
It’s become a troublingly common sentiment in Taiwan, and I messaged him privately to say that strength should be only a part of Taiwan’s strategy, that our politicians and other public figures should show true courage by reaching out to China to somehow de-escalate. When a stronger bully threatens you, shouldn’t you first try to defuse the situation?
“Don’t be a capitulator,” he shot back.
That exchange, pitting friend against friend, is emblematic of the damage that China already is inflicting on Taiwan without a single shot having been fired.
The threat of Chinese aggression, and how to confront it, is dividing Taiwan’s society. To accuse someone of being a traitorous “Communist licker” or, conversely, of fanning tension by being dangerously anti-China has become the norm. Fear of conflict with China is tearing at tolerance, civility and our confidence in the democratic society we have painstakingly built. When 37 current and former Taiwan scholars last month issued an open letter calling for Taipei to chart a middle path between China and the United States and criticizing U.S. “militarism,” they were attacked as naïve and soft on China. This division and distrust play right into China’s hands.
The possibility of war with China comes up in nearly every dinner conversation in Taiwan.
During a recent gathering of friends, our discussion centered on whether China would bomb Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s biggest producer of advanced computing chips, to destroy one of our greatest economic assets. Or would the United States drop the bombs to prevent TSMC from falling into China’s hands? Would Taiwan’s nuclear power plants be blown up in a scorched-earth policy to turn the island into a radioactive wasteland, useless to China?
During a lunch that included military officials and strategists, a retired former high-ranking defense official said China could simply blockade Taiwan, which has only about an eight-day supply of natural gas; sever undersea telecommunication cables; or strangle us economically by cutting off trade. (Around 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports go to China or Hong Kong.) China, he said, could take the island without resorting to military action.
None of this is completely new for the people of Taiwan. We have lived in China’s shadow for more than 70 years, shaping who we are.
When I was a schoolgirl in the 1950s, warnings like “Communist spies are all around you” covered the walls of classrooms, and the worst insult was to accuse someone of conspiring with the “Communist bandits” — the epithet that was used in Taiwan for decades to refer to the Chinese Communist Party.
Although we were island dwellers, many of my generation never learned to swim because as children, we were afraid of the beach. After the former Nationalist government of China lost a civil war to Mao’s Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949, an invasion was feared and martial law declared. Soldiers often patrolled beaches, toting rifles with shining bayonets, and islands near China’s coast were heavily mined. We were warned that Communist frogmen might swim ashore with camouflage-painted faces and knives between their teeth.
We’re proud of the vibrant democracy and economic success that we’ve built in spite of these conditions. We’ve shown that democracy can function in Chinese culture. This mix of anxiety, pride and perseverance is the essence of Taiwan’s character and something often overlooked by a world that tends to view Taiwan as a pawn in China’s rivalry with the United States. We are flesh and blood, too.
Our character is perhaps best exemplified away from the political noise of Taipei, in rural farming areas and fishing villages where people are prone to laughter, giving generous gifts of their produce and issuing spontaneous dinner invitations. Even here, opinions on China differ, but there is a common denominator of down-to-earth realism that I hope, for all our sakes, will prevail over the long run. It’s not that the common folk believe resisting China is futile but that Taiwan will always be within China’s immense gravitational pull and that pragmatism, even accommodation with China, might be preferable to war.
A friend of mine, a deeply tanned farmer who grows wax apples, wakes in the predawn gloom each day, puts on a headlamp and carefully inspects his orchard for pests. He won’t say this publicly for fear of being attacked as a collaborator, but he supports unification with China simply because it is the land of his ancestors. People with the same heritage, culture and history should, he believes, be one nation. He wants a strong, prosperous China that stands tall in the world, with Taiwan a part of it. But, embodying the mixed feelings in Taiwan, he would still fight if war broke out, although for his home, family and village.
Pan Chi-min, another farmer I know, cultivates Indian jujube trees on his orchard in southern Taiwan. China is his major market. The previous, more China-friendly Kuomintang (K.M.T.) government, which I served in, signed a trade agreement with China in 2010 that allowed his fruits to reach Chinese supermarkets within a few days. But after the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) won the presidency in 2016, China tightened market access with a series of bans. Mr. Pan had to turn to Japan, which required an expensive journey to market lasting up to three weeks. The sweet, juicy fruits would often be tasteless by the time they reached Japanese dinner tables.
Mr. Pan reads the history of Tokugawa Ieyasu, an important 19th-century Japanese military ruler associated with patience and endurance, virtues which Mr. Pan feels Taiwan must adopt when facing China.
“When the fighter jets fly overhead, you know what we farmers do?” he asked. “We bend down and keep tilling the land.”
On the ruggedly beautiful east coast of Taiwan where I have a home, Pacific Ocean waves crash on the rocky shore, fruit trees ripen in the sun, and the pace of life has changed little over the decades.
Here, too, China is on everyone’s mind. In August, when China held live-fire military drills in the waters around Taiwan to express its anger over a visit to Taipei by the U.S. speaker of the House at the time, Nancy Pelosi, I watched from home as Taiwan fighter jets roared offshore, sending village dogs skittering under the bushes. My neighbor Wu Fang-fang texted me. Each household should grow a different vegetable, she suggested, which we can trade with one another if the military exercises erupt into a war that disrupts food supplies.
She asked: And what about power generators?
The grandest feasts in the neighborhood are at the home of Chen Chi-ho, a fisherman who calls friends over when the catch is especially good. Mr. Chen learned how to land swordfish — with a traditional method using harpoons — at the age of 13 from his father, who had learned it from a Japanese fisherman who remained after Japan’s half-century colonization of Taiwan ended in 1945. With amazing balance, dexterity and aim, Mr. Chen, now in his late 50s, stands at the bow of his boat as it heaves up and down and hurls a harpoon at the thrashing, six-foot-long fish.
If war broke out, Mr. Chen said while hosting a recent dinner, he could sail to the Japanese island of Okinawa, about 500 miles away. “Anybody need a lift?” he joked. Someone asked what it would cost to apply for Japanese residency papers. Another suggested it would get boring eating sashimi every day. We all laughed.
But Mr. Chen told me that if China invaded Taiwan, he would resist, “like the Ukrainians did,” not because he harbors ill will toward China — though Beijing’s threatening behavior rubs him wrong — but because those who draw their livelihood from the sea are accustomed to danger; they fight to survive.
I asked whether his son would take up arms.
He sighed. Many younger Taiwan residents — absorbed in their mobile phones, socializing and other leisure pursuits — seem oblivious to the danger, he said. Yet he wouldn’t judge someone for not wanting to fight or for holding different views.
Taiwan is set to hold a pivotal presidential election in January, and the question of whether to confront China or pursue conciliation will have significant implications for us all in the months ahead. If the K.M.T. wins, tension with China might ease; if the D.P.P. retains power, who knows?
Mr. Chen says it won’t matter anyway: The United States and China decide our fate.
Who would he blame if war broke out? I asked.
“Whoever fires the first shot.”
Yingtai Lung is a writer, essayist and cultural critic in Taiwan. She was Taiwan’s first culture minister from 2012 to 2014. Her books include “Big River, Big Sea — Untold Stories of 1949.”