A small archipelago used as a front line to threaten China

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  • Chord Den Daas

    China Correspondent

  • Chord Den Daas

    China Correspondent

Today there were provincial elections in Taiwan. It deals with domestic issues, but a strained relationship with China is never far away. At the forefront of that strained relationship are the Matsu Islands off the coast of Fujian Province. It is the focal point of Chinese military pressure. Taiwan feels cautious every day. Reporter Sjoerd den Daas visited the islands.

A ferry departs every day from Keelung, just north of Taipei, to the Matsu Islands. The crossing takes about eight or nine hours, most of it filled with people who couldn’t get tickets for the limited flights to and from the islands. They chose the cheapest option: the boat with bed is cheaper than the 50-minute flight.

The port and large LED letters slowly disappear from view. The first part of the ferry briefly sails along the northwest coast of Taiwan, its contours clearly visible even at nightfall. Then it gets dark. Except for a few fishing boats and container ships, there is nothing to see for a long time in transit, directly across the Taiwan Strait.

greater threat

Nangan Market, the administrative and economic heart of the Matsue Islands, is crowded at dawn. By seven in the morning, the candidates for the post of magistrate, the de facto mayor of the archipelago, are already on their way to recruit voters. “We greet people here, talk to them,” says Wang Zongming.

He is one of two candidates for the island’s Kuomintang (KMT), a party that favors closer ties with Beijing. “It’s about transportation and the relationships between the islands,” he says. A second airline, more ferries, for example. Less in relation to the larger threat from China, with which Matsuo has lived for decades. “We’re used to it,” Wang says. Earlier we had to hide from the artillery.

In times of heightened tensions with China, it’s good to make the Taiwanese feel like they’re not alone, says the foreign minister in an extensive interview with reporter Shourd den Das.

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 Cao Eryuan, another KMT candidate. “Now there is democracy and freedom. Back then there was a curfew, and the lights had to be turned off at night.”

freedom

The scars of past crises are still visible across the island. Defense positions, some still occupied, others now deserted. The island has several hundred tunnel systems, where soldiers and civilians can take shelter.

“It’s all handmade, using explosives,” says Liu Jiago. You can still see the holes. He is the director of Matsuo’s main news website. People died here because sometimes the explosives didn’t go off until later.” The archipelago, which has a population of around 13,000 and is smaller than Schiermonnikoog, is just a few kilometers off the Chinese coast. Visible to the naked eye from inside the vault.

“The distance to China is nothing, far from our hearts,” says Cao Yixiong. He opened an art studio and restaurant in one of the now-abandoned defense posts of the Taiwanese Army. “We enjoy our human rights, liberty, and the rule of law.”

Tsao: “If Xi Jinping is willing to give the people the right to vote, with freedoms equal to those of Taiwan, then I agree to reunification,” he laughs. Not likely, as Xi tightens his thumb screws and increases pressure on Taiwan.

Bully as a neighbor

In addition to elections for mayors and county councils, there is a referendum to lower the voting age from 20 to 18. An election that for most people, including Matsuo, is not a direct referendum of the national government. Also meet Lii Wen, who ran for DPP Tsai Ing-wen in Matsu. “It’s the first time we’ve done that,” he says at his campaign office.

“Finally there is something to choose from,” he tells me. “It’s about good health care, the housing market, and transparent governance,” Lee continued, then got into his campaign jeep. The current island government is corrupt, as it appears in democratic circles. He was asked about China’s role in this election, “People follow the news and know that the forces are on high alert.” “People are willing, but people don’t let their daily lives be affected just because they have a bossy neighbor.”

Fresh winds

Corona restrictions and travel restrictions on the other side of the water mean that no Chinese theme park has come to Matsu in nearly three years. Wang accounts for nearly a fifth of the total number of tourists, and is a candidate for the position of judge. “Because tourists from Taiwan have not been able to go abroad for a long time, more people from their country have recently 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 shouldn’t be locked here, not even your car. Where do they go with your car, in the sea?” Wang laughs. Then, more seriously: “In Taipei, you don’t necessarily choose a candidate you know, it matters less in the big city. Here it’s different: people choose someone they know.”

Tough battle for DPP’er Lii, who comes from abroad? “I don’t think so,” he says. “People are optimistic that we will change local politics.” “A breath of fresh air, should encourage youth and hope for progress.”

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