small archipelago used as a front line for the threat from China

News hour

  • Sjoerd den Daas

    China Correspondent

  • Sjoerd den Daas

    China Correspondent

Today there were regional elections in Taiwan. It deals with local themes, but the tense relationship with China is never far away. At the forefront of the tense relationship are the Matsu Islands off the coast of Fujian Province. It is the focal point of Chinese military pressure. Taiwan feels warned every day. Correspondent Sjoerd den Daas visited the islands.

A ferry departs daily from Keelung, just north of Taipei, to the Matsu Islands. The crossing takes about eight or nine hours, mostly filled with people who couldn’t get tickets for the limited flights to and from the islands. They went for the cheaper solution: the boat with a bed is cheaper than the 50 minutes by plane.

The gate and the large LED letters slowly disappear from view. The first part of the ferry sails briefly along the northwest coast of Taiwan, the contours of which are clearly visible even at nightfall. Then it gets dark. Apart from a few fishing boats and container ships, there is nothing to see for a long time during the crossing straight through the Taiwan Strait.

Greater threat

The market in Nangan, the administrative and economic heart of the Matsu Islands, is bustling at dawn. By seven o’clock, the candidates for the magistrate, the de facto mayor of the archipelago, are already on their way to recruit voters. “We greet people here, have a chat with them,” says Wang Tsong-ming.

He is one of two candidates for the Kuomintang (KMT) on the island, the party that favors closer ties with Beijing. “It’s about transport. Connections between the islands,” he says. Another airline, more ferries, for example. Less about the bigger threat from China that Matsu has lived with for decades. “We’re used to it,” says Wang. “Before, we had to hide from the artillery.”

In times of rising tensions with China, it is good to make the Taiwanese feel that they are not alone, says the foreign minister in a wide-ranging interview with correspondent Sjoerd den Daas.

Taiwan will defend itself if necessary

Martial law was in force on the island until 1992. “There was no late return by fishing boat from the sea,” said Tsao Er-yuan, the other KMT candidate. “Now there is democracy, freedom. Back then there was a curfew, the lights had to be turned off at night.”

Freedom

The scars from the previous crises are still visible all over the island. Defensive posts, some still occupied, others now abandoned. The island has many hundreds of tunnel systems where soldiers and civilians could take cover.

“All made by hand using explosives,” says Liu Jiaguo. “You can still see the holes.” He is the director of Matsu’s main news site. “People died here because sometimes explosives didn’t detonate until later.” The archipelago, which has around 13,000 inhabitants and is smaller than Schiermonnikoog, lies only a few kilometers from the Chinese coastline. Visible with the naked eye from inside the bunker.

“The distance to China is zero, far from in our hearts,” says Tsao Yisiung. He opened an art studio and restaurant in one of the now-abandoned defense posts of the Taiwanese army. “We enjoy our human rights, freedom, the rule of law.”

Tsao: “If Xi Jinping is willing to give the people the right to vote with freedoms similar to Taiwan’s, then I agree with reunification,” he laughs. Unlikely at a time when Xi is tightening the screws and increasing pressure on Taiwan.

Bullying as a neighbor

In addition to the mayoral and district council elections, there is a referendum on lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. Elections that for most, including Matsu, are not directly a referendum on the national government. Also know Lii Wen who ran for Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party at Matsu. “This is the first time we’ve done this,” he says in his campaign office.

“Finally there is something to choose from,” says Lii. “It’s about good healthcare, the housing market and transparent governance,” Lii continues, then climbs into his campaign jeep. The current island government is corrupt, according to democratic circles. “People are watching the news, know that the troops are on high alert,” they asked about China’s role in this election. “People are prepared, but people don’t let their everyday life be affected just because they have a thug as a neighbor.”

Fresh wind

The Corona restrictions and travel restrictions across the water mean that no Chinese day-trippers have come to Matsu for almost three years. Wang accounts for about a fifth of the total number of tourists and is a candidate for the judgeship. “Because tourists from Taiwan could not go abroad for a long time, recently more people from their own country have come to Matsu. For us, this is a positive development,” he says.

The big difference with cities like Taipei and other big cities? “The door doesn’t need to be locked here, not even your car. Where can they go with your car, out to sea?” laughs Wang. Then more seriously: “In Taipei you don’t necessarily choose a candidate you know, it counts less in the big city. Here it’s different: people choose someone they know.”

A tough fight for DPPer Lii coming from outside? “I don’t think so. People are optimistic that we will shake up local politics,” he says. “A breath of fresh air to encourage young people and hope to bring progress.”

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