Not far from the rusting tanks and anti-landing pikes that litter the beaches of Kinmen County, 92-year-old veteran Yang Yin-shih reads his diary in the shadow of the enemy that regularly graces its pages.
Several miles from Yang’s home, on the tiny Kinmen Islands, lies China, where he can see for himself the military might that threatens his homeland.
Last week, Beijing staged unprecedented war games around self-governing democracy amid a storm of rage after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the Taiwanese capital.
Photo: Sam Yeh, AFP
As Chinese ships dotted the Taiwan Strait and missiles plunged into the waters surrounding the islands, a real risk of conflict emerged.
However, Yang was unimpressed with Beijing’s latest war drum beat, despite islets of 140,000 people sitting just 2 miles (3.2 km) from the Chinese city of Xiamen.
“I’m not nervous. Kinmen is calm and quiet,” he said, smiling between his morning routines of watching TV and walking around his neighborhood.
Yang witnessed the deadliest bombardment of the islands closest to China more than 60 years ago, and said the last exercises were small in comparison.
In 1958, China fired over a million shells into Kinmen and nearby communities, killing 618 people and wounding over 2,600.
” The bombardment [in 1958] was more nervous. It was more tense back then,” he said. “It is difficult to say the situation – if [China] intends to intimidate or intends to attack.
Despite current tensions and bitter memories of the conflict, many Kinmen residents have a friendly view of China after years of close trade and travel ties across the short stretch of sea.
Taiwan has suspended ferry services to Chinese cities because of COVID-19, but Yang Shang-lin, a 34-year-old in the tourism industry, said he hoped Kinmen would soon reopen to Chinese visitors despite the saber blows from Peking.
“Taiwan is freer and we don’t want to be ruled by China,” he said. “But we have to make ends meet.”
Still, there is a division on the islands, with some Kinmen residents ready to defend their homeland against Chinese aggression.
“If there were to be a war, I would fight,” said Huang Zi-chen, a 27-year-old civil engineer.
“I was born in this country and I have to go through thick and thin when my country needs me,” he said during a break from overseeing a construction project.
Where the Kinmen Islands once served as a natural barrier to invasion, Beijing could now easily circumvent them with its superpowered arsenal of missiles, jets and aircraft carriers.
Yang, a car rental company, said “the disparity in military forces is far too great”, leaving Kinmen little hope of fending off a Chinese attack, especially given its size and proximity to China.
“I wouldn’t want to go to the battlefield because there would be no chance of winning,” he said.
James Chen, an 18-year-old student who is one of the few his age who has not left Kinmen to study or work in a city on mainland Taiwan, said fighting should be left to professional soldiers.
“I think there is a 50% chance that China will use force against Taiwan, but we have no control over China, we should just be ourselves,” he said.
This means that life is normal in Kinmen.
Residents are not rushing to bunkers to hide or to supermarkets to stock up, but rather to sing karaoke at home and dine with friends.
As 73-year-old Cheng Hsiu-hua played card games with her neighbors outside their home on one of Kinmen’s quiet streets, she dismissed the possibility of Chinese troops ever landing on their shores.
“No, we are not afraid. They [Chinese troops] won’t come here,” she said.
If Beijing brought arms, old Yang says he would prefer peaceful unification to conflict.
So he offers a message to the Chinese government, drawn from the legacy of the bombing he saw with his own eyes decades ago.
“Don’t go to war. War brings suffering and misery,” he said. “There will be death on both sides.”
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