In a small urban park on Yong Kang Jie, Taipei’s famous eat street, an elderly woman leans across the frame of her friend’s parked bicycle and shouts. “Taiwan is an independent country!”
It’s a quiet autumn morning. Children play on a nearby slide, and a young mother enjoys a takeaway bento box.
But here, in a spontaneous speakers’ corner, a hot topic is being debated. The diminutive septuagenarian’s eyes flash above her medical mask as she continues, having just interrupted a friend, Lin, who had been urging that Taiwan – and its people – should not argue, lest it provoke China to up the ante of what she terms 70 years of bullying.
“Definitely ours, not China’s country,” the woman shouts, raising her fist, before walking off.
Lin, who declined to give her first name, insists the Taiwanese should not cause trouble.
“The best is to not oppose. Be gentle, do not fight,” she says. “We all should live peacefully together. China said as long as we don’t do independence, they won’t invade.”
The boisterous but good-natured debate in the park is emblematic of today’s Taiwan – tightknit but sometimes divided, fearful yet defiant, a vibrant democracy just a few decades free of authoritarianism but already having to contemplate the prospect of its return.
The world is now familiar with Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan is a breakaway province of China that must be retaken to fulfil a dream of national rejuvenation. While Beijing calls her a separatist, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, maintains Taiwan is already a sovereign nation with no need to claim independence.
With no common ground between the two positions, the world has watched in alarm as Beijing has ratcheted up its acts of military intimidation and bellicose rhetoric. Lin’s hope that peace can be maintained by Taiwan keeping quiet appears increasingly unlikely.
In the first four days of October alone, about 150 Chinese warplanes flew through Taiwan’s air defence zone, with Chinese officials saying it was targeting “Taiwan independence separatist activities”. The record sorties are part of years of military build up and expansion, increased drills and threats, mostly aimed at Taiwan.
It has prompted an extraordinary response from world governments who have sharply criticised China, offered support to Taiwan, formed new security pacts, and increased their military presence in the region. On Friday, the US president, Joe Biden, said the US was committed to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. It echoed other somewhat woolly statements from the president which at a literal interpretation overturn decades of deliberate ambiguity, but at the very least indicate the US’s increasing support for Taiwan, underpinned by billions of dollars in arms sales.
Front pages have warned of looming conflict, drawing in the world’s powers and regional allies and affecting international security, trade, and economies. Former world leaders have warned “China is coming for Taiwan’s freedom”.
Yet Taiwan’s people have lived under the threat of China’s invasion for decades, and some believe that worrying about an attack is like worrying about an earthquake. Eyes rolled at an Economist front page earlier this year declaring Taiwan “the most dangerous place on earth”. There is demonstrably more concern as China’s aggression and resolve has grown under the leadership of Xi Jinping, but on the ground, life goes on.
‘Everything changes overnight’
In the capital, Taipei, pandemic restrictions have mostly 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 parks fill with groups of elderly men and women practising tai chi and traditional dances under towering ficus and banyan trees while students cycle through to their campuses.
The evening and online news follows Covid vaccination rates, party leadership elections, political scandals and slanging matches, local disasters and celebrity gossip. The near-daily aerial incursions by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army air force are scattered among the headlines.
“I’m not that worried,” says Cho, an 18-year-old electronic engineering student at National Taiwan University. “They’ve been calling for invading Taiwan for dozens of years but I haven’t seen them really prepare.”
Cho and his fellow students Chen and Yeh, also 18, are speaking in the bustling campus food hall. Their focus is on graduating and getting good jobs. While they say they only marginally follow politics, they have a strong grasp of recent developments.
They welcome the international attention on Taiwan – Cho jokes that people overseas will stop confusing them with Thailand now – and the support of foreign governments against China’s threats.
“I think the possibility [of an attack] is quite small because these eyes are watching them,” says Yeh.
“Maybe it will happen, but it’s almost impossible because if China was to attack this would not just be between China and Taiwan,” says Chen. “Other countries can be affected. So more and more of them are paying attention.”
At the end of their degrees they will report for four months of mandatory basic training – the last vestige of Taiwan’s phase-out of a conscription-based armed force. It’s an oft-cited example when analysts point to issues with Taiwan’s defence forces.
The island has no chance of matching China’s might, but its government has pledged to increase spending and focus on a “porcupine” defence strategy – making themselves hard to bite. Just 14 beaches on Taiwan’s cliff-lined coast offer a viable landing point, and former military figures have previously told the Guardian they believe Taiwan can stop a full ground invasion, if not an aerial assault.
This month, Taiwan got a little louder about its fighting spirit. President Tsai and her senior ministers have trodden a careful path, emphasising Taiwan’s contribution to the global community with its pandemic successes, and as an example of a friendly vibrant democracy. Taiwan is not “adventurist” and has no appetite for war, but, she has promised in recent speeches and editorials, it does have the will to defend itself.
Analysts say Tsai is a far more measured and cautious advocate for the status quo than others in the DPP who are more independence-minded, including those who may seek election after her final term ends in 2024.
A declaration of independence is a red line for Beijing. People point to Hong Kong, where a movement in support of democracy, with just fringe elements advocating for independence, was brutally crushed.
The events just a few hundred miles over the sea have not been lost on Taiwan residents. China has proposed a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan, the same that it promised Hong Kong would have until 2047, only to effectively throw it out after the 2019 mass protests.
Tsai Jya-en, 23, says she watched Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong with alarm. “They used to be very free, just like Taiwan. But everything changes overnight. I think Taiwanese people should have more awareness of the crisis.”
Back in the Yong Kang Jie park, Lin shares the same fear a Chinese invasion would 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.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin