Taiwan's island fortress revisits '50s tensions Except for brief thaw, Quemoy never lost its bunker mentality

March 15, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUEMOY, Taiwan - The years of dictatorship, war and isolation have taken a sad toll on this small island in the Taiwan Strait.

It has the look of a garrison town: well-paved roads and neat flower beds, to be sure, but also a stunted economy and the weary feel of a place that young people abandoned long ago.

Making matters worse for Quemoy's 50,000 residents is that they briefly tasted prosperity.

By 1992, the Cold War that once made this strategic island a household name in the conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan had ended.

Martial law had been lifted.

And just a mile and a half away, the old enemy, China, was booming and encouraging trade across the strait.

But the clock has turned back for Quemoy, an island that is part of Taiwan and thus gripped in the latest showdown over Taiwanese independence.

Just 30 miles to the south, China is conducting large-scale military exercises, training its troops for a possible invasion of the main island of Taiwan an invasion that could well start with Taiwan's front-line islands, especially "Fortress Quemoy" or one of its islets.

Bitter rhetoric flows across the strait.

Tourists, who once numbered 2,000 a day, are not to be found.

The 30,000 soldiers stationed here spend their days confined to barracks, their leave canceled, venturing out only to dig trenches or change shifts in the pillboxes and machine-gun nests that dot the roadways. Even the U.S. Navy has jumped into the act,

sending two full carrier groups to nearby waters in a replay of 1950s muscle-flexing.

As Quemoy County boss Ch'en Shui-tzai put it: "The chance of an armed conflict is 30 percent."

Panic, however, is hardly visible.

"This is just a familiar situation for us," said Li Bao, an 80-year-old resident.

"Can't worry anymore"

"Worry? We're so used to this that we can't worry anymore," she said.

It's a feeling common to people living on Quemoy, which is also known as Kinmen or Jinmen.

It has been Taiwan's front-line island for so many decades that the latest threat from China hardly elicits any excitement.

"I've experienced five armed clashes. Two times Chinese soldiers landed here and on three occasions we were hit by rockets," Mr. Ch'en said.

"We had artillery duels for decades. I'm not worried. I've seen this all before."

But what Mr. Ch'en and others do feel is a sense of disappointment.

After martial law was lifted in 1992, the local economy grew at a tantalizing annual rate of 13 percent, compared with Taiwan's national average of 6.8 percent.

Tourists flowed in and, although the soldiers remained the nuisance they always had been, they at least served the tourist industry.

The military even started to give land back to the population and to pay compensation for homes expropriated in the 1940s and 1950s.

A bridge was approved to link the main island of Quemoy with Little Quemoy, which lies between Quemoy and mainland China. There was talk of another bridge from Little Quemoy to the mainland.

"What we need is peace," Mr. Ch'en said. "No one understands that better than we do."

Resentment of long standing

Disappointment is also laced with anger, much of it pointed generally at the main island of Taiwan and some of it at President Lee Teng-hui, who many locals feel has put their future in jeopardy.

His clumsy handling of Taiwan's desire for international recognition, they feel, has provoked China.

After the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, lost China's civil war in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan, Taiwan became an international backwater.

Country after country switched diplomatic recognition to mainland China. China still claims Taiwan, and most countries that want to deal with China have to accept China's claim over Taiwan.

President Lee has tried to change this, for example by pushing for Taiwan's entry into the United Nations.

But China has rejected this, saying Mr. Lee is trying to win independence for Taiwan.

Hence the exercises, military tension and Quemoy's reversion to "front-line" status.

"Lee Teng-hui talks without thinking," said Huang Tse-wei, an electrician who has seen business plummet over the past few months.

"People over in Taiwan [island] may be nervous, but we're paying the price."

Resentment at the main island of Taiwan has long roots in Quemoy, although this was hidden from public view for years as the island was off-limits to visitors and under martial law.

When the first Nationalist soldiers arrived in Quemoy in the late 1940s, as they were losing China's civil war, they forced local people to provide food and housing.

Homes were torn down and beams used to construct bunkers. A good half of the island was under military jurisdiction as Quemoy was turned into Taiwan's impregnable fortress.

At first, the island was seen as a springboard for the Nationalists' plan to reconquer the mainland.

Later, it became a factor legitimizing their holding on to the formal title of "Republic of China."

Quemoy, and another island, Matsu, belong to Fujian province.

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