As Nancy Pelosi set off for her historic visit to Taiwan this week, videos on Chinese social media began circulating showing convoys of armored vehicles moving along beaches in the port city of Xiamen, on China’s southeast coast.
Less than 5km away, on the Taiwanese islands of Kinmen, life continued as normal, even as China announced a series of unprecedented military drills that Taiwan’s defense ministry said amounted to a blockade. Children played in the streets, students posed for graduation photos and buses of tourists continued to wind their way around the islands’ attractions.
Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Kinmen, also known as Quemoy. Old military sites, relics from when the islands were the cold war frontline between China and Taiwan, litter the landscape. Giant speakers on the coast that once blared propaganda across the sea now play soft music.
One favorite stop-off for visitors is the workshop of Wu Tseng-dong. Wu has been making knives for decades, carrying on his father’s business. “At first our main customers were soldiers, but once the tourism industry developed, that’s when we really started to make a living,” he says.
Each of Wu’s knives is crafted from a used artillery shell.
On 23 August 1958, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), launched a ferocious artillery bombardment of Kinmen that continued, to some extent, for more than 20 years. Many people in Kinmen can vividly remember living under constant shelling – a fact that sets people in Kinmen apart from most Taiwanese.
“Everyone who lived here then has friends and family who were killed. We had to dig our own air raid shelters. If you didn’t, there was nowhere to hide when the shells fell,” Wu says.
This legacy and divergent histories – unlike Taiwan proper, Kinmen has for hundreds of years been entirely under Chinese rule in one form or another – mean few in Kinmen would even refer to themselves as “Taiwanese”. They are happy to be part of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, and see no need to declare a separate, independent country.
The independence-leaning Democratic Progressive party under President Tsai Ing-wen has ruled Taiwan for the last six years, but politics on Kinmen is dominated by the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties with China. The islands’ representative to the Taiwanese legislature, the KMT’s Chen Yu-jen, says her constituents are unhappy with Tsai’s policies towards China, citing a lack of communication between the two sides as one reason for the current crisis.
While Chen welcomed Pelosi’s visit, she says it was not worth the damage caused to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing. But she says people in Kinmen were unconcerned with China’s military maneuvers: “There’s no reason for them to attack Kinmen. Their goal is Taiwan; if Taiwan falls then Kinmen will follow.”
Her view is one that is shared by Samuel Hui, a military historian who lives in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung.
“Kinmen used to be very important to the defense of Taiwan. The Chinese Communists had to take Kinmen to have any chance of launching a successful invasion. But now, the PLA has multiple aircraft carriers and ballistic missiles to directly attack Taipei and other major cities. There’s no good reason to invade Kinmen.”
Despite Kinmen’s historical ties with China, there is a growing generational divide. Many young people leave Kinmen to find work elsewhere in Taiwan, and few can imagine living under the authoritarian system of the communist mainland. In the 2020 elections, Tsai’s share of the vote in Kinmen grew by 57% following Beijing’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
Nina Hong grew up moving back and forth between Taiwan’s main island and Kinmen. She considers herself Taiwanese, and is proud of the democratic freedoms she enjoys. The 28-year-old, who works for a company selling beauty products in Taiwan, says the two sides of the Taiwan strait too often talk past each other. “Pelosi’s visit has driven people further to extremes. It’s helped more people around the world see Taiwan, but it doesn’t fix it [Taiwan’s international isolation].”
In Wu’s workshop, he shows off a newly forged blade while explaining to an audience ranging from grandparents to young children how people on the island could tell by the sound of an artillery shell where it was going to land.
“I don’t think there will be a war,” he says. “But ever since the pandemic, exchanges have stopped between Taiwan and mainland China. I think it has had a negative impact on the relationship.”
When asked if he blames Beijing for taking military action after Pelosi’s visit, Wu hesitates. “That’s politics, not something ordinary people like us can control,” he says. “All we can hope for is peace.”
It’s a sentiment shared by 83-year-old Cheng Ching-li, who heads the local association for veterans of the second Taiwan Strait crisis. “People today have no idea what we went through,” he says. “War is heartless. And peace is priceless.”