Taiwan's front-line isle ignores rumors of war

Cold War bastion of Quemoy prefers smuggling with enemy

August 15, 1999|By FRANK LANGFITT | FRANK LANGFITT,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JINMEN, Taiwan -- He has called himself a fisherman these past nine years, but the only time his nets get wet are when it rains.

The 43-year-old Taiwanese sails from Big Jinmen Island, part of what Westerners know as the Quemoy chain in the Taiwan Strait.

Defying laws against direct trade with the enemy, he meets his Chinese counterparts, buys their catch and smuggles it home to sell at a profit.

A little more than a mile off China's southern coast, the fortress island of Big Jinmen is a first line of defense and a reality check amid rising tensions between the rival Communist and Nationalist Chinese governments.

Early last month, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui said China and Taiwan should have "special state-to-state" relations, which Beijing interpreted as a move toward declaring independence.

The comments seemed to scrap the "one-China" policy, which holds out reunification as a common goal and has helped maintain peace across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait for decades. Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province and its most sensitive foreign policy issue.

U.S. analysts increasingly speculate that Beijing might take military action to send a message to Lee, a native Taiwanese, not a "mainlander" Nationalist who fled to Taiwan in 1949, after losing the Chinese civil war.

To minimize the political and economic fallout, as well as a U.S. military response, the action may be a quick strike or economic blockade against one of Taiwan's small, outlying islands, such as the 12 in the Jinmen chain, U.S. analysts say.

For now, though, those who may be most at risk -- the people of Jinmen -- seem unconcerned. Politics is not a hot topic in the clandestine business of the Taiwan Strait.

"Why talk about it?" said the smuggler, who asked that his name not be used. "Everybody just wants to make a living."

Over the past decade, the island has developed a booming, illicit trade with its mainland sister port city, Xiamen. People on both sides depend on it.

The same can be said for Taiwan and China as a whole.

Taiwan has banned direct trade links with China to protect itself from the mainland's smothering embrace. Legal trade, flights and other contacts must flow through third parties such as Hong Kong, but economic ties are stronger now than ever before.

Since Taiwanese investment in China was legalized in 1992, the island nation has become the mainland's second-largest direct investor after Japan. Bound by a common language and culture, the two sides engage in $25 billion in trade annually.

Two recent articles in state-run Chinese newspapers captured the disparity between the political rhetoric and the economic reality.

Last week, the Communist Party's Global Times warned that China was ready to attack Taiwan. "Swords and bows are drawn," it said. "Military conflict between the two sides could erupt at any moment." A week earlier, the state-run China Daily encouraged Taiwanese business leaders to keep pouring money into the mainland, promising that Beijing would protect the billions of dollars they had already invested.

Had the articles been combined, the headline could have read: "We're ready to invade, but keep the money coming."

The history of Jinmen, a subtropical island chain covering 93 square miles, with a population of 51,000, parallels the shift in relations from conflict to commerce over the decades.

The islands sit just above the 24th parallel at about the same latitude as Florida's Key West.

Long steel spikes stick up from broad beaches to prevent amphibious assault. The mountains of southern China's Fujian province loom in the haze a little more than a mile away.

Officially, Jinmen is part of Fujian but remains under Taiwanese control. Beginning in 1958, Mao Tse-tung used it for target practice.

The Communists spent nearly a month and a half trying to shell the island into submission with more than 400,000 pieces of ordnance. The residents never buckled. Soldiers and citizens dug lengthy tunnels in which they hid. Farmers tended their fields by moonlight during breaks in the barrage.

Foreshadowing the economic relationship to come, a local factory began making cutlery out of unexploded Chinese shells. The owner estimates Jinmen has enough to last him another 20 years.

As tensions relaxed, trade eventually followed. Today, Chinese boats pull up on the beaches of Big Jinmen Island at low tide to sell peaches, pears, garlic and tea. Rafts made of plastic pipes deliver cattle, sheep and horses. Officials in Taipei say the trade also includes electrical appliances and handguns.

Style of fishing

Jinmen's peculiar style of fishing is an open secret. It began in the early 1990s. Local fishermen largely attribute it to laziness and labor costs.

On a per capita basis, Taiwan is 17 times wealthier than China. Wages are so much higher that it made more sense for Jinmen fishermen to buy fish than hire people to help catch them.

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