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Kinmen-An Island Lost


Lying just off the coast of Fujian Province, little Kinmen Island has been at the front line of opening links between China and Taiwan, but closer contacts also highlight residents' contradictory feelings regarding national identity.



Kinmen-An Island Lost

By Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 409 )

Heping Port is one of most attractive sightseeing spots in Xiamen, on the coast of China's Fujian Province. Over the past few years, boat trips from Heping Port, located on the west coast of Xiamen Island, to the islets of Dadan and Erdan some 11 kilometers away have become hugely popular. Both Dadan and Erdan belong to the Kinmen island chain, held by Taiwan.

Standing on deck, tourists like to take photographs in front of a wall on Dadan Island that carries the slogan "Unite China through the Three Principles of the People" (the official state doctrine of the Republic of China on Taiwan, first enunciated by Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China). Built for propaganda purposes and visible from Xiamen Harbor, the white wall with its red characters used to be illuminated at night to spread its message to China.

The ideological foe on the other side retorted by putting up a sign on the east coast of Xiamen Island that declares, "Unite China through One Country, Two Systems" (the formula by which the PRC acquired governance of Hong Kong and Macau, and hopes to use similarly vis-à-vis Taiwan).

Once pummeled by artillery shells during the Cold War era when the Kinmen garrison served as Taiwan's frontline defense, the waters between the two propaganda slogans have since become a busy shipping route, plied by passenger ferries.

The war has left its mark on the Kinmen people, but not too deep. The islanders do not harbor much resentment or hostility toward the former enemy. While Kinmen served as a trial balloon for further cross-strait opening, direct shipping links with China have greatly changed the island group's destiny, turning it into a showcase that offers a glimpse of how cross-strait relations could develop in the future.

'Small Three Links' Bring Bigger Clout

Kinmen's fate changed seven years ago when the Taiwanese government, then led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), opened the "small three links" in a demonstration of goodwill toward the Chinese government. (The "three links" refer to direct postal, transportation and trade links between China and Taiwan, and the "small" three links are limited to interchanges between the southern Chinese cities of Xiamen, Mawei and Quanzhou and Taiwan's offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu.) The new policy allowed Kinmen and Xiamen to revive contacts that had been interrupted for half a century.

However, the Chinese government interpreted the three small links as a rejection of the "one China" principle and an attempt by the pro-independence DPP government to thwart Beijing's ultimate goal – direct links between China and Taiwan proper. As a result China did not actively encourage Chinese tourists to visit Kinmen.

Chien-min Chen, associate professor at the Department of Tourism Management at National Kinmen Institute of Technology, bemoans that Kinmen has so far not seen the crowds of tourists it expected. And Taiwanese businesspeople, who were later on allowed to travel to and from China via Kinmen, do not spend much during their short stopovers. Chen feels that Kinmen has not reaped any substantial benefits from the direct links over the past seven years.

Yet once Pandora's box was opened, developments that no one anticipated got under way too. The frequent ferry contacts between Kinmen and Xiamen have created a sphere of everyday cross-border interaction, and have triggered a slight shift in the islanders' sentiments toward Taiwan and China.

A Mr. Chen, who runs a cram school in Kinmen's main township of Jincheng, routinely travels to Xiamen with his family. The 33-year-old has opened an account at a Xiamen bank from where he can conveniently withdraw money in the local currency – renminbi - that he needs for shopping and entertainment in China.

In between major public school exams, when he is not so busy at his cram school, Mr. Chen likes to travel with his family. They take the ferry to Xiamen and then take the plane from Xiamen airport to other destinations in China. "An eight-day trip to Beijing costs only NT$15,000," says Chen in explaining the advantage of departing from a Chinese city. On Xiamen's Zhongshan Road, a popular shopping area, a number of shops are reportedly owned by people from Kinmen.

Young people, meanwhile, are flocking to Xiamen for schooling.

A lecturer at National Kinmen Institute of Technology, who declined to be named, is pursuing her doctorate at Xiamen University. Starting this year she commutes to Xiamen two days per week to attend classes at the university, while lecturing in Kinmen during the remaining time. She estimates that about 50 students from Kinmen have enrolled at Xiamen University. They picked the university not only because it is close-by and its tuition is cheap, but also because it offers an opportunity to make contacts with students from all over China and from different professional backgrounds. "I don't care whether my degree is recognized. What's important is that the opportunities to develop are greater there. I would encourage my friends to study in Xiamen," she says.

Marriages between both sides are also hugely popular. Between 2004 and 2007 every third marriage in Kinmen was between a Kinmen resident and a Chinese spouse, a much higher ratio than on Taiwan proper and only second to Matsu, according to figures from the Ministry of the Interior.

About 70 percent of Kinmen's 83,000 inhabitants have visited China at least once, while almost 10 percent have already been there ten times or more.

"The people of Kinmen now have a sense of satisfaction and superiority," declares Mr. Chen the cram school proprietor, describing the subtle shift in the islanders' sentiment. "In the past we were on the frontier, an offshore isle, but with the small three links the Kinmen people are closer than Taiwan to a powerful country on the rise, and we've begun to enjoy conveniences that people on Taiwan don't get."

Are Kinmen People Taiwanese or Chinese?

Chien-min Chen, the professor, feels that emotionally the Kinmen people live with a paradox. "In the past they considered themselves very lucky if they weren't killed by the People's Liberation Army, but now they don't hate China at all, because their lives have become so much more convenient," he observes.

Some Kinmen people even feel somewhat frustrated when looking at Xiamen's mind-boggling development. Tseng Chin-chao, head of the Taiwanese Business Association in Xiamen, recalls that when he went to the port city for the first time in 1991, its airport terminal had a corrugated iron roof that was illuminated by a single 40 watt light bulb, a far cry from the facilities at Kinmen airport at the time. But in the intervening years Xiamen airport has seen its third expansion. "In the future even the world's largest aircraft, the Airbus A-380, will be able to take off and land there, but what do you see in Kinmen?" Tseng asks rhetorically.

The contradictory feelings of the Kinmen people are also related to their ancestry. Professor Chen contends that the Kinmen people view themselves as "mainlanders from the Minnan region" of China (the area south of the Min River), and the older generation even regards itself as Fujianese, not Taiwanese.

Chen found in his research that almost 60 percent of Kinmen people regard themselves as Chinese, or as both Taiwanese and Chinese. That figure is about 10 percent higher than the average for all of Taiwan.

However, younger people, who have grown up in freedom, openness and affluence as a result of democratization, tend to identify more with Taiwan.

Even the lecturer who pursues her doctorate at Xiamen University says that she is keenly aware that something sets her apart from her Chinese classmates – being Taiwanese. "Taiwan is still freer, more open. Kinmen people and Taiwanese people are the same," she says in explaining her impressions.

But no matter whether the islanders identify with Taiwan some 280 kilometers away or with nearby China, whether they define themselves as Kinmen islanders, Taiwanese or Chinese, none of this will prevent further rapprochement between Kinmen and Xiamen.

Political Pawn? No Thanks

Close exchanges like those between Kinmen and Xiamen are what the Chinese government most hopes to see. Observing the flourishing of Kinmen-Xiamen contacts on an unexpected scale, the originally skeptical Chinese government turned into an advocate of the three small links.

The state of everyday cross-border interactions between Kinmen and Xiamen matches the tenor of the Chinese government's Taiwan policy, namely "to reduce political alienation through trade and exchanges." It also fits Beijing's strategy to build bottom-up pressure on Taipei for further opening toward China.

Not so long ago Kinmen County magistrate Juh-feng Lee had a dispute with the Taiwanese central government's Mainland Affairs Council over his plans to visit Xiamen. (Taiwanese government officials are generally barred from visiting China.) Eventually the dispute was solved when the cabinet loosened restrictions on China visits by city mayors and county magistrates. These developments further convinced Beijing that the three small links would force Taiwan to make further concessions regarding opening toward China.

"The three small links are like the first brick that was broken from the Berlin Wall," says Liu Guoshen, head of the Taiwan Research Institute at Xiamen University.

But the Kinmen people are no longer willing to be ruled by either government. They have begun to assert their own will.

Even though the cross-strait policies of Beijing and Taipei seem like a storm noisily blowing across the skies over Kinmen, visitors touring the island will discover how peaceful and laid-back the island is. Amid the picturesque traditional Minnan-style villages and war relics you won't find ethnic tension or hatred.

Juh-feng Lee continues to believe that Kinmen needs to develop its tourism and leisure industry to attract more tourists from China. He is also adamant that the Kinmen people want to be the masters of their own destiny and are no longer ready to serve as political pawns. "The three small links have helped Kinmen open a window (of opportunity). Kinmen's future lies with China," he asserts.

In reality, Kinmen should plant its future in the soil of its own culture.

The poet Cheng Chou-yu, who has retired in Kinmen, once wrote, "The mainland regards Kinmen merely as a hostile garrison, while Taiwan views it only as a springboard for landing in China. No one has ever acknowledged that Kinmen is special, like a gold mine, and could become a model for the world."

Kinmen has turned from a frontline garrison into a bridgehead for cross-strait peace. While preserving their cultural heritage of ancestral shrines and family clan villages, the Kinmen people have shown that it is possible to overcome war and hatred and to embrace the universal value of peace. And that may very well be Kinmen's most fascinating asset.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 金門─丟掉的一個島