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View from the front line between Taiwan and China

Tonthink about Here’s the thing: if in a conflict between the United States and China Taiwan will be the front line, then in a confrontation between Taiwan and China it will be Quemoy, an island 187 kilometers from Taiwan, administering it, But only 3 kilometers away from China, this is not.

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Measuring just 150 square kilometers, Kinmen is the main island of the Taiwan archipelago county, located at the mouth of Xiamen Bay and home to 142,000 inhabitants, in the immediate vicinity of Fujian province in southern China (see map). Rusty anti-ship barricades line the beach. Compared to Xiamen, a sub-provincial city across the water, it is a sprawling Chinese city whose skyline is visible from its shores. In 2001, the ferry to Xiamen started operating, turning Xiamen into a center of tourism and business exchange. Many in Golden Gate also want to be closer—some have proposed building a bridge and wanting to connect the grid. Not only do they hope to make Jinmen more prosperous, but they also hope that closer integration with the mainland may be the best way to avoid being attacked. “America, China, Taiwan, whatever you do, don’t involve us,” said local MP Chen Yanghui. He was one of several local politicians who demanded in February that Taiwan withdraw its troops and “demilitarize” the island. Taiwan’s central government has yet to respond.

The Golden Gate Islands were cut off from mainland China in 1949 when they became the front line of a Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, who fled to Taiwan and became self-governing entities, who won control of the mainland and created the People’s Republic of China.

For decades, Kinmen has endured routine shelling from mainland China, even as Taiwan turned the county into a garrison with as many as 100,000 soldiers stationed there. From the age of 16, Jinmen people were forced to deliver supplies for soldiers, put under curfew and trained in rural combat units. When China bombarded Quemoy in 1958, 88-year-old Hong Minghua, a dock worker, fired more than 470,000 rounds in 44 days. More than 600 people died. He remembers soldiers fleeing as he and other locals waded through bodies in the water to save as many people as they could. “Without Kinmen, there would be no Taiwan,” he said.

Many people in Kinmen feel that Taiwan owes them a debt of peace. Its pro-China politicians have complained that Taiwan’s politics have stymied Kinmen’s prosperity, leaving them behind while mainland China and the rest of Taiwan prosper. It’s an illusion: Kinmen’s per capita disposable income will be about $13,200 in 2021, compared with $21,800 in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and $9,980 in Xiamen.

But the contrast between Kinmen’s sleepy villages and Xiamen’s high-rises remains enviable. Jinmen people want to be part of China’s development, and China wants to invest. Chen Yuren, who represents Jinmen in the National Assembly, said: “They will treat us well and let us be an example so that Jinmen can develop and prosper. But Taiwan will not accept this.”

Proponents of demilitarization also accuse Taiwan, not China, of threatening Kinmen’s security. Mr. Chen, a Chinese congressman, argued that China did not want to attack Kinmen in the first place because they were a family. But he said the 3,000 Taiwanese troops stationed in Kinmen are a “thorn in the side” of China and should be removed. “If we’re not a threat, they won’t hurt us,” he said.

These arguments strike some as naive. Wang Ling, 37, said people in Quemoy did not discuss whether achieving peace through integration with China meant losing freedom. Ms. Wang grew up in Kinmen and went to university in Taipei. She once argued with her Taiwanese classmates that she insisted that she was Chinese because of Kinmen’s Fujian ancestry. Kinmen people and Xiamen people speak the same Hokkien dialect. Many still live in traditional Hokkien houses with curved red roofs. But she has come to realize that her affinity for China is cultural, not political. In Taipei, she participated in the labor rights movement. Later, she studied in Beijing, where she saw how grassroots activists were suppressed. Now she calls herself Taiwanese. Quemoy politicians have acted “like obedient children” rather than equals when interacting with Chinese officials, she said.

Dong Senbo, a county councilor who opposes the demilitarization plan, said that just because Kinmen said “no war” doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Instead, Quemoy and Taiwan should prepare for the worst while upholding democratic values, he said. This is a tough message for anyone who feels like they have no control over their future. “We are chess pieces, chess pieces,” Mr Dong said, “not chess players.”

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