Kinmen County, Taiwan. Fort San Jiao Cafe on Kinmen Island may well be the best place in Taiwan to watch the threat of a Chinese invasion. It offers direct views of the Chinese city of Xiamen, located just six miles from the hotel. It is built on an old military bunker, decorated with camouflage netting, and serves hot and cold drinks.
Now, with Chinese warships bobbing off the coast of Taiwan and missiles plunging into its seas, the split loyalties of the two cafe owners speak volumes about a generational shift in Taiwan that has changed the island democracy’s relationship with China.
If China tries to take over Taiwan by force, 32-year-old Chiang Zhong-jie will fight, even if the chances of victory are slim. Ting Yi-hsiu, 52, said he would “give up.”
With a culture forged by eras of indigenous peoples, hundreds of years of Chinese immigration, Japanese colonial occupation, and a harsh period of martial law, Taiwan is not monolithic. During its three decades of democracy, its politics have been dominated by conflicting views, and debates about whether to grant or oppose China’s claim to the island have diverged along age, identity, and geographic lines.
In recent years, with China’s growing militancy, the golden mean has shifted. Now more and more Taiwanese see themselves as separate from China. For them, China is an existential threat to a pluralistic and democratic way of life. They do not see Taiwan as part of a long-separated family, as Mr. Ting and many older, China-friendly people describe their relationship.
Even on the islands of Taiwan closest to China, which have historically been more benevolent to their neighbor, Mr. Ting is an endangered species. On the contrary, the older generation, which remembers China’s attacks more keenly a few decades ago, is the most friendly towards the nation. Beneficiaries of Chinese economic liberalization and recipients of education that emphasized ties to China, they look back on the years when China opened up to the world and made many rich before Xi Jinping became the supreme leader. For young Taiwanese, their vision of China is the same as Mr. Xi’s, an illiberal country bent on denying their ability to choose their own leaders.
Although Mr. Chan has had the same experience as Mr. Ting — both have spent time in China and lived most of their lives in Kinmen — he appreciates Taiwan’s openness and feels threatened by Beijing. “I cherish the freedom and democracy of Taiwan and do not want others to unite me,” he said.
The outlook, bolstered by decades of democratic rule, as well as China’s relentless efforts to isolate Taiwan and, more recently, dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, has contributed to the downplayed response of many to Chinese military exercises in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit. This is what many expect from China.
Even in the cafe at Fort San Jiao, built on a piece of historical ruins from the recent past direct military confrontation, indifference to new threats reigned. Unlike the tanks rusting on the shore below, the abandoned vehicles reminiscent of the days when the two sides exchanged artillery fire, the exercises were played out far in the sky and at sea. China’s provocative launch of at least 11 missiles on the first day of the exercise, one of which flew over Taiwan, went unnoticed by most.
On the coast of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, an archipelago off mainland China, life went on largely as usual, despite being only 25 miles from one of the exercise’s staging areas. Along with the loading of artillery shells into the transport boat by Taiwanese troops, voluntary beach cleanup continued. Many said that it was worse before.
Hardened by decades of military stalemate, the elderly residents ignored the tensions. During the confrontation between the US and China in 1995 and 1996, before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, they recalled how people fled small islands and rushed to banks to cash out their savings during the Chinese war effort.
Understand the tension between China and Taiwan
What does China mean for Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese troops retreated after the 1949 communist revolution was never part of the People’s Republic of China.
“People were fleeing,” said Pao Yu-ling, 62.
Ms. Pao is convinced that, like last time, nothing special will come of this. This is a rare case of agreement with her 35-year-old daughter Chan Yi-chie.
She has little memory of past military exercises during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, as the standoff came to be known at the time. Instead, she said, the Chinese dredgers that have recently flooded the seas near the islands have become a more tangible sign of Chinese aggression.
Now she is critical of China’s authoritarianism. While her mother believes that economic growth should come first and admires the new buildings being built on the nearby Chinese islands, Ms Chang said freedom and democracy are paramount.
“Sun Yat-sen, our founding father, won the revolution for so long and delivered us from the dictatorship, why should we return?” she said.
The trend is even more pronounced further away from China, on the island of Taiwan itself, where most of the 23 million people live. There, Jessica Fang, a 26-year-old consultant from the central city of Changhua, said that along with democratic values, the constant threat of attack is increasingly permeating her generation’s worldview.
With the current tensions, many observers from outside Taiwan seemed to expect the Taiwanese to be “hysterically” stocking up on food and making evacuation plans, Ms. Fang said, adding that she was offended by the perception. “Taiwanese seem calm in the face of growing tension, not out of ignorance or naivete, but because it is accepted – even internalized – as part of being Taiwanese,” she said.
However, she acknowledged that China’s recent military posture made her take the prospect of an attack more seriously. If the Taiwan Strait does become 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 for her to contribute.
A handful of people on the Taiwanese islands near China caught a glimpse of the teachings. In Kinmen, Chiu Yi-xuan, a 39-year-old owner of an independent bookstore, said she felt the shockwave on Thursday. “At first I thought it was thunder, but then I realized it wasn’t,” she said.
Despite this, she was unperturbed. “It reminds me of my childhood memories of dodging bombs,” she said, adding that current threats don’t matter much compared to the past.
To the north, on the Matsu chain of islands, Cai Hao-ming, a 16-year-old high school student, said he heard the sound of an explosion and saw a brief flash of light. He showed a picture he took with his phone of two parallel contrails rising off the coast of China.
During his year in China, Mr. Cai began to admire aspects of the country such as its economic growth and technological prowess. However, he has said that he plans to join the Taiwanese military when he is old enough. He prefers Taiwan for its freedom of expression.
This is important for his main form of political activism, creating memes, trolling the Chinese Communist Party and Mr Xi online.
In response to rising tensions with China, he created a meme of images from the British sitcom Mr. White. Bean, in which the protagonist looks at his watch and falls asleep. Above them, he added his own message: “So the party is going to attack?” referring to the Chinese Communist Party by a derogatory nickname.
He said that his views on China were unanimously shared by his friends and that they did not take the prospect of an invasion seriously. As is often the case, China’s anger was ostentatious, he said.
“Two rockets made beautiful photos. If they have so much money, why don’t they shoot more,” he said.
Amy Chan Chien reported from Kinmen County, John Liu reported from the Matsu Islands and Paul Mazur Taipei reports.