September 30, 2022

KINMEN COUNTY, Taiwan — San Jiao Fort Cafe on Kinmen Island may well be the best place in Taiwan to watch the threat of an invasion from China. Directly overlooking the Chinese city of Xiamen, just six miles away, it’s built on top of an old military bunker, decked out in camouflage netting and serving hot and cold drinks.

With Chinese warships now remaining off Taiwan’s shores and missiles tumbling into its seas, the divided loyalties of the two cafe owners speak volumes for a generational shift in Taiwan that has transformed the island republic’s relationship with China.

If China tried to take Taiwan by force, Chiang Chung-chieh, 32, would fight, even if the chances of winning were slim. Ting I-hsiu, 52, said he would “surrender”.

With a culture forged from aboriginal times, hundreds of years of Chinese immigration, Japanese colonial occupation and a harsh period of martial law, Taiwan is not monolithic. During its three decades as a republic, conflicting loyalties have dominated its politics, with debates over whether to accommodate or oppose China’s claims to the island breaking down along age, identity and geography.

In recent years, under increasing bellicosity from China, the middle ground has changed. Now, more and more, Taiwanese identify as separate from China. For them, China represents an existential threat to a pluralistic and democratic way of life. They do not see Taiwan as part of a long-standing divided family, as Mr. Ting and many senior China-friendly people describe the relationship.

Even in China’s closest islands of Taiwan, which have historically been more favorable to their neighbor, Mr. Ting is a dying breed. Conversely, the older generation, which most vividly remembers China’s attacks decades ago, is the most friendly to the nation. Beneficiaries of Chinese economic liberalization and recipients of an education that emphasized Chinese ties, they remember the years when China opened up to the world and made many rich, before Xi Jinping became the supreme leader. For younger Taiwanese, their vision of China is what Mr. Xi has created, an unfree land that tends to deny them their ability to choose their leaders.

Although Mr. Chiang has had similar experiences to Mr. Ting — both have spent time in China and lived much of their lives in Kinmen — he appreciates Taiwan’s openness and feels threatened by Beijing. “I love Taiwan’s freedom and democracy, and I don’t want others to join me,” he said.

The perspective, hardened by decades of democratic rule as well as China’s relentless efforts to isolate Taiwan and, more recently, dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, informed the restrained response of many to Chinese military exercises in response to the visit of the President of the Republic, Nancy Pelosi. It is what many expect from China.

Even in brown San Jiao Fort, itself built on a piece of historical remains from a not-so-distant past of direct military confrontation, there was indifference to the new threats. Unlike the tanks rusting on the beach below, discarded material reminiscent of the days when the two sides exchanged artillery fire, the exercises took place far out in the skies and seas. China’s provocative launch of at least 11 missiles on the first day of the drills, one of which flew over Taiwan, was unseen by most.

Ashore in Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, an archipelago near mainland China, life went on mostly as normal, despite being just 25 miles from one of the exercise sites. Alongside Taiwanese troops loading artillery shells onto a transport vessel, a volunteer beach clean-up continued. Many said things were worse before.

Hardened by decades of military stalemate, elderly residents shrugged off tensions. During a US-China standoff in 1995 and 1996, before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, they recalled how people fled smaller islands and rushed to banks to cash out life savings during Chinese military actions.

“People were running for their lives,” said Pao Yu-ling, 62.

Ms. Pao is convinced that, just like last time, nothing will come of it. It’s a rare point of agreement with her 35-year-old daughter, Chang I-chieh.

He has little memory of previous military exercises during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, as the standoff was then called. Instead, he said Chinese sand dredgers, which have recently flooded seas near the islands, were a more tangible sign of China’s aggression.

Now he views China’s authoritarianism with a critical eye. While her mother believes economic development should come first and admires the new buildings that have gone up on nearby Chinese islands, Ms Chang said freedom and democracy are paramount.

“Sun Yat-sen, our founder, took so long to win the revolution to get us out of the dictatorship, why should we go back?” he said.

The trend is even more evident than in China, on the island of Taiwan itself, where the majority of its 23 million people live. There Jessica Fang, a 26-year-old councilor in the central city of Changhua, said that along with democratic values, the constant threat of attack increasingly looms large in her generation’s worldview.

With the current tensions, many watching outside Taiwan seemed to expect Taiwanese to stockpile food and make evacuation plans “hysterically,” Ms. Fang said, adding that she was offended by the notion. “Taiwanese appear calm in the face of rising tension not because of ignorance or naivety, but because it is accepted – even internalized – as part of being Taiwanese,” he said.

But it acknowledged that recent military posturing by China has led it to take the prospect of an attack more seriously. If the Taiwan Strait becomes a battlefield, Ms. Fang said she would send her parents to safety and then stay and fight, though she admitted that taking up arms might not be the most effective way to contribute.

A handful of people on the Taiwanese islands near China caught a glimpse of the exercises. In Kinmen, Chiu Yi-hsuan, a 39-year-old owner of an independent bookstore, said she felt a shockwave on Thursday. “At first I thought it was thunder, then I realized it wasn’t,” he said.

Even so, she was unperturbed. “This reminds me of my childhood memories of dodging bombs,” he said, adding that current threats were no big deal compared to the past.

To the north, on the Matsu island chain, Tsai Hao-min, a 16-year-old high school student, said he heard an explosive sound and saw a brief burst of light. He showed a picture he had taken on his phone of two parallel tracks rising off the coast of China.

During a year spent living in China, Mr. Tsai came to admire aspects of the country, such as its economic development and technological prowess. However, he said he planned to join Taiwan’s military when he was old enough. He prefers Taiwan for freedom of expression.

It is important for his main form of political engagement, making memes to troll the Chinese Communist Party and Mr. Xi online.

In response to rising tensions with China, he created a meme out of images from the British sitcom, ‘Mr. Bean,” which showed the titular character checking his watch and falling asleep. On top of that, he added his own message: “So, will the Party attack?” referring to the Chinese Communist Party by a derogatory nickname.

He said that his view of China was unanimously shared by his friends and that they did not take the prospect of an invasion seriously. As was often the case, he said, China’s anger was for show.

“The two rockets made for beautiful pictures. If they have so much money, why don’t they shoot more,” he said.

Amy Chang Chien reported from Kinmen County, John Lew reported from the Matsu Islands and Paul Mozur reported from Taipei.

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