As Taiwan votes, island is caught in the middle

Quemoy: On a long- disputed flyspeck, people feel torn between China and Taiwan, reunification and independence.

March 19, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUEMOY, Taiwan - If China were ever to carry out its threat to invade Taiwan, it might begin with the occupation of this small island, separated from the mainland by little more than a mile of peaceful blue water.

Like the island of Taiwan itself, Quemoy has been fought over for 400 years by a succession of powers as near as the mainland and as remote as the Netherlands. In the past half-century, Quemoy was occupied by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops, the losers in China's civil war, and then barraged by Communist China's artillery and by pro-Communist propaganda (literally, with canisters containing leaflets).

So the people of Quemoy are of two minds about who they are: Taiwanese, Chinese or both? Do they eventually want to be reunified with mainland China or be part of an independent Taiwan?

On the eve of a presidential election, questions of identity are paramount for the people of Taiwan, where the debate over the future is both inflamed and constrained by the prospect of war. China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory, has vowed to use force should Taiwan ever take steps toward formal independence.

Chen Hui-fen, a 29-year-old schoolteacher on Quemoy, is laughing at the thought. She calls herself Taiwanese, but also considers herself Chinese, and her thoughts are focused less on reunification or independence than on memories of war.

"Which would unify with which?" she asked. "I don't like war. I like peace," she said. "I think the present is not bad."

On Quemoy, where industrious locals sell knives and cleavers forged from the scraps of Chinese artillery shells, the memories of bombardment and the proximity of the mainland invest the threat of war with real meaning.

"We were really scared when we were little. We heard the shells and would hide ourselves in a shelter," said Chen, now an expectant mother, sitting in a knife shop where a friend works.

The shells stopped falling when she was about 4 years old, in 1978. "When I was in elementary school, I always had nightmares about war," Chen said.

Quemoy, known here as Kinmen, has been disputed territory for half a century, claimed by both China and Taiwan to be part of the mainland's Fujian province.

With about 61,000 residents and 15,000 Taiwanese soldiers, the island is but one small reminder that Taiwan is more complex than the monolithic concept accepted in the West - a free, democratic alternative to communist rule. It is a republic of 23 million people with blurred, sometimes-conflicting cultural and political loyalties.

The Taiwan puzzle

As they prepare to vote tomorrow, the Taiwanese must choose between a Nationalist challenger advocating closer ties with China and an incumbent with leanings toward independence - status that Taiwan has in fact but has not formalized in law.

Taiwanese in their 20s and 30s are the voters perhaps least fixed in their views. They grew up with no memory of a war with China and with little memory of the repressive Nationalists at home, who ruled under martial law until 1987.

"People our age are more [removed from] the scars of maybe 30 or 20 years ago," said Hsiao Shih-chieng, 21, a senior at National Taiwan University. He and his friend Sia Ek-hong, also a senior, are members of a generation sorting out the puzzle of Taiwanese identity and status.

Their early schooling taught them they were Chinese in the Nationalist fashion, while society began teaching many that they were also Taiwanese. Now, they have come of age in a Taiwan with free speech, democratic elections and relative prosperity, and they have an acute awareness of the contradictions of their upbringing.

Hsiao, the son of Taiwanese islanders, notes that his history and geography textbooks in his earlier years were primarily about mainland China, so he could tell you the capital of a Chinese province but not much about regions of Taiwan.

Hsiao now labels himself Taiwanese but feels heavily influenced by Chinese culture. His classmate Sia, also descended from Taiwanese islanders, took a more radical turn.

"Before coming to university, I think we are the same country - Taiwan and China are the same country, just separated for a period of time," Sia said.

In college, he joined a Taiwanese language club, he said, and he had a radical awakening: "When I find out Taiwanese history, the real history, I'm angry, because I have a feeling that the government lied to me."

Sia came to see Taiwan as the victim of occupation and oppression by a succession of foreign powers, from Dutch imperialists to mainland emperors to the Japanese and then the Chinese Nationalists. Sia calls himself "pure Taiwanese" and is the host of a radio talk show on a station owned by a supporter of President Chen Shui-bian, a champion of Taiwanese-identity politics.

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