In a small urban park in Yong Kang Jie, Taipei’s famous food street, an elderly woman leans over the frame of her friend’s parked bicycle and shouts. “Taiwan is an independent country!
It is a quiet autumn morning. Children play on a nearby slide and a young mother enjoys a take-out bento box.
But here, in the spontaneous speakers’ corner, a hot topic is being debated. The 70-year-old’s eyes blink above her medical mask as she continues, after interrupting a friend, Lin, who had urged Taiwan – and its people – not to argue, lest it provoke the China to raise the bar for what it calls 70 years of bullying.
“Certainly ours, not the country of China,” the woman shouts, raising her fist before walking away.
Lin, who declined to give his first name, insists Taiwanese shouldn’t be causing any problems.
“The best is not to oppose. Be gentle, don’t fight, ”she said. “We should all live in peace together. China has said that as long as we don’t gain independence, they don’t invade.
The noisy but good-natured debate in the park is emblematic of today’s Taiwan – united but sometimes divided, fearful but provocative, a dynamic democracy decades away without authoritarianism but already having to contemplate the prospect of its return.
The world is now familiar with Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is a separatist province from China that must be taken over to realize a dream of national rejuvenation. While Beijing calls it a separatist, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen maintains that Taiwan is already a sovereign nation that does not need to claim independence.
With no common ground between the two positions, the world has watched with concern as Beijing escalates its acts of military intimidation and belligerent rhetoric. Lin’s hope that peace can be maintained by Taiwan’s silence seems increasingly unlikely.
In the first four days of October alone, around 150 Chinese fighter jets flew over the Taiwan air defense zone, with Chinese officials saying they were targeting “Taiwan independence separatist activities.” The record-breaking sorties are part of years of military build-up and expansion, increased exercises and threats, mostly directed against Taiwan.
This elicited an extraordinary reaction from world governments which sharply criticized China, offered their support to Taiwan, formed new security pacts and increased their military presence in the region. US President Joe Biden said on Friday that the United States is committed to defending Taiwan in the event of an attack. It echoes other somewhat fuzzy statements by the president that, in a literal interpretation, reverse decades of deliberate ambiguity, but at the very least indicate growing US support for Taiwan, backed by billions of dollars. of arms sales.
The front pages warned of impending conflict, attracting world powers and regional allies and affecting international security, trade and economies. Former world leaders have warned that “China is coming for the freedom of Taiwan.”
Yet Taiwanese have lived under the threat of a Chinese invasion for decades, and some believe that worrying about an attack is the same as worrying about an earthquake. Eyes up on an Economist front page earlier this year, declaring Taiwan “the most dangerous place on the planet”. There is clearly more concern as China’s aggression and resolve has grown under Xi Jinping’s leadership, but on the ground, life goes on.
“Everything changes overnight”
In the capital, Taipei, pandemic restrictions have mostly been lifted, and people are filling restaurants and night markets, returning to beaches and taking long weekends to hike in the mountains. In the morning, the city’s parks fill with groups of elderly men and women practicing tai chi and traditional dances under towering ficus and banyan trees as students cycle to their campuses.
The evening news and online follow Covid vaccination rates, party leadership elections, political scandals and slang matches, local disasters and celebrity gossip. Near-daily air raids by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force hit the headlines.
“I’m not that worried,” says Cho, an 18-year-old electronics engineering student at National Taiwan University. “They have been calling for an invasion of Taiwan for decades, but I haven’t seen them really prepare. “
Cho and her fellow 18-year-old Chen and Yeh speak in the bustling campus dining hall. Their goal is to graduate and get good jobs. Although they say they only marginally follow politics, they have a good understanding of recent developments.
They welcome the international attention to Taiwan – Cho jokes that people overseas will stop confusing them with Thailand now – and the support of foreign governments against threats from China.
“I think the possibility [of an attack] is quite small because those eyes are looking at them, ”Yeh says.
“Maybe it will, but it’s almost impossible because if China were to attack, it wouldn’t just be between China and Taiwan,” Chen said. “Other countries may be affected. So more and more of them are paying attention.
Upon graduation, they will undergo four months of compulsory basic training – the last vestige of Taiwan’s phasing out of a conscription-based armed force. This is an example often cited when analysts report problems with the Taiwan Defense Force.
The island has no chance of matching the might of China, but its government has pledged to increase spending and focus on a “porcupine” defense strategy – making it hard to bite. Only 14 beaches on Taiwan’s cliff-lined coast offer a viable landing point, and former servicemen have previously told the Guardian they believe Taiwan can stop a full ground invasion, if not an air assault.
This month, Taiwan made a little more talk about its fighting spirit. President Tsai and her senior ministers have taken a cautious path, emphasizing Taiwan’s contribution to the world community with its pandemic successes, and as an example of friendly and vibrant democracy. Taiwan is not an “adventurist” and has no appetite for war, but, she has promised in recent speeches and editorials, she has the will to defend herself.
Analysts say Tsai is a much more measured and cautious defender of the status quo than other DPP members who are more concerned with independence, including those who may run for office after her last term ends in 2024.
A declaration of independence is a red line for Beijing. People point to Hong Kong, where a pro-democracy movement, with just fringe elements advocating independence, has been brutally crushed.
The events a few hundred kilometers above the sea have not escaped the notice of residents of Taiwan. China has proposed a “one country, two systems” deal for Taiwan, the same it had promised in Hong Kong until 2047, to effectively reject it after the mass protests of 2019.
Tsai Jya-en, 23, says she has watched with concern Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong. “Before, they were very free, just like Taiwan. But everything changes overnight. I think Taiwanese should be more aware of the crisis. “
Back in Yong Kang Jie Park, Lin shares the same fear that a Chinese invasion will see Taiwan become the next Hong Kong.
“In Taiwan, we are free, but in China, the government controls everything. They have their own life there, we have our own life here.
Chi Hui Lin additional reports