A Political Gamble: Taiwan’s Kinmen Island and the Decision of Supporting the Central Government’s Coronavirus Prevention Measures

Written by Shun-Te Wang.

Image Credit: 金門三日 by 一帆尹 ; License CC BY-NC-ND. 2.0

As Chinese influence infiltrates everyday life in Kinmen, local politicians still find it challenging to predict local opinion over border control issues. In early February 2020, 6 kilometres away from China, a dissatisfaction toward the government’s Coronavirus prevention measures became prominent on the Kinmen island. The island’s public demand that Taiwanese central government, which is 300 kilometres away from Kinmen, to suspend the “Three Links” to prevent the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) from entering.

The “Three Links” is the direct shipping, postal service, and transportation between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan. As Taiwan’s nearest territory to China, Kinmen was chosen as the first harbour to operate a direct passenger vessel service since the military conflict between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since 2000, the Three Links had transformed Kinmen from a Cold War outpost into a busy hub between both sides of the strait. The passengers and tourists from China save Kinmen’s fragile island economy, which was highly dependent on the consumption of soldiers. Thus, the island suffered from economic depression after demilitarisation in the 1980s.

As the ruling party of Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), stands against Beijing’s ambition to unite Taiwan under “One Country, Two Systems”, the cross-strait relation has taken a turn for the worse, which puts Kinmen’s China-dependent economy at risk. In 2019, Beijing’s ban on solo travellers to Taiwan caused a loss of £714 million in six months. According to Hong, an interviewee from Kinmen county government, it could result in a loss of 15 per cent on Kinmen’s total economic revenue. Therefore, the local government and politicians now face a dilemma. Whenever the central government announces a policy relevant to cross-strait affairs, they need to consider its impact on the local economy, on local stakeholders, on local opinions, and their political careers and then decide whether to support the central government or not. In essence, it is a continuous political gamble.

The most controversial conflicts are issues that relate to border management since it has a direct impact on the tourist industry. In December 2019, Taiwan’s legislature passed the “Anti-Infiltration Act” to prevent Beijing from manipulating Taiwanese society. Yu-Jen Chen, the only legislator from Kinmen, said the act would provoke Beijing’s anger and could result in catastrophe for the Kinmen economy. For her, the action against Taipei is a strategy to win the support from Kinmen. Earlier in April, the central government suspended the import of pork products from Kinmen to Taiwan in order to prevent an outbreak of African Swine Fever, which had killed millions of pigs in China. As a reaction, Chen criticised the central government’s disease measurement as “discrimination” against Kinmen. Although she received overwhelming criticism from Taiwanese society — making her a popular theme of political memes — she was able to win 46.64 per cent of the island’s votes during the 2020 legislative election. For Chen, the choice of opposing Taipei’s border management policy is a successful political gamble.

Nonetheless, the local politicians lost their bets during the outbreak of Coronavirus in 2020. On January 23, after the Chinese authorities quarantined Wuhan city, some Kinman residents began to discuss the possibilities of Three Links’ suspension, so they can prevent the virus from entering Kinmen. However, most politicians tended to downplay this demand. For example, Chen replied in her official Facebook post: “If we suspend the Three Links, the happiest people in the world will be the airlines in Hong Kong and Macau; Our local airline, local taxis, bus operators, hostels, hotels and restaurants will suffer…therefore, I suggest not to stop it unless the disease becomes extremely severe…”. Although the magistrate of Kinmen county, Cheng-Wu Yang, did not respond to this issue, one of his cabinet members, the Director-General of the Tourism Department, publicly criticised the idea of suspension as “thoughtless”. Somehow, their attempts to protect the local economy has ignited the anger of the islands’ public. Unlike last time, Chen’s Facebook page was swarmed by angry replies and emojis, forcing her to delete the post. Meanwhile, without a promise of suspending the Three Links, Kinmen’s public has begun to question the magistrate’s leadership. Although both Yang and Chen later publicly demanded the central government to suspend the Three Links, their failure to predict local opinions has caused huge damage to their public image.

A classical framework to explain the Kinmen politicians’ dilemma is known as the “China Factor.” According to Jieh-Min Wu, the “China Factor” is the process by which the Chinese government expands its political influence by absorbing other countries into the Chinese economic system. In this case, the dependence of the island’s economy on China is so high that politicians do not dare to propose any policy potentially causing damage to their partnership with China. However, this doesn’t explain why Chen and Yang’s attempt to find a balance between the local economy and disease prevention became a public relations disaster.

Besides the physiologic impact of the Coronavirus, the Chinese influence in everyday life in Kinmen could also be another important factor contributing to public demand of suspending Three Link, regardless of their economic interest. If you live in Kinmen, you can feel China’s influence in every part of your life. The souvenir shops put the national flags in front of the store, and price their products with simplified Chinese characters. If you don’t like the local TV show, you can install a little antenna in your house and enjoy television from China. And If you make a phone call in the northern part of the island, you might even be charged for international roaming!

The closeness between Kinmen and China is not merely a geographical, but also an issue of hegemonic conflict. This situation might be an essential factor for the overwhelming local opinion of suspending Three Links regardless of its economic impact. Whilst Taiwanese audiences mainly acquire their impression of China from local media, for a majority of Kinmen people, their understanding of China comes from their encounter with Chinese people and culture every day: media, business partners, and the tourists in the street. Some of the Kinmen family even visit China monthly just for shopping — since it takes only 30 minutes from Kinmen to the nearest shopping centre in Xiamen, China. When facing the Coronavirus outbreak, these encounters have become a source of pressure. For example, according to Chang, a Kinmen-based hostel owner from Taiwan, said she didn’t worry about the disease by the beginning of January. Yet, when customers from China asked to cancel their reservations and told her what was happening in China, she began to worry. As the fear of Coronavirus prevails in society, even walking in the main street can be a source of psychological pressure. “I understand the government had imposed a couple of disease prevention measurements.” Wang, a local Kinmen resident said, “But whenever I hear people talking in mandarin with a Chinese accent and walking in the street next to me, I still feel worried.”

The effect of social media also plays an essential role in disseminating information about the disease. In Kinmen, a majority of the population use social media from both sides of the strait. As a consequence, an aspect of their understanding about the Coronavirus is constructed through information spread by Chinese platforms such as “WeChat” and “Weibo”. For example, when the magistrate used quantitative data from Taiwan to defend their decision-making process, some people use news or stories from Chinese social media to reject the government’s argument. Yet, most of the information comes from unreliable, or even unknown, sources. This includes stories about China’s determination and sacrifice to stop Coronavirus in quarantined cities, and also the conspiracy theory about Coronavirus and bioresearch. These rumours are wide-separated among local social platforms, making public opinion even more unpredictable.

The different arguments concerning Three Links’ suspension reveal China’s holistic effects on Taiwanese society during decision-making processes. From the perspective of public health, it is about preventing the virus from entering the Kinmen island through border control. From another perspective, in the traditional narrative of the “China Factor”, it refers to how China influences local tourist business owners and politicians’ attitude toward border control. In this story, the politicians’ failure to predict public opinion reveals how China infiltrates everyday life in Kinmen. The influence of China does not always create Beijing’s favoured outcomes. In this case, it brings rumours, and it magnifies people’s fear.

Acknowledgement: This piece of work is supported by four interviewees: Jun-Rui Hong, Yu-Chun Chang, Cheng-En Lee, and Chia-Hua Wang.

Shun-Te Wang was trained as a molecular biologist and had involved in some community engagement projects in Taiwan. He later obtained his second MSc of Environment, Politics and Society in University College London. He is also a member of Taiwan Youth Climate Coalition. This article is part of the special issue on COVID-19.

Along with Taiwan Insight’s special issue on Covid-19, we also introduce a timely special issue of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) on “Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and WHA”. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and the WHA is now a major cause for concern. To understand the reasons, consequences and possible remedies for Taiwan’s exclusion, one has to adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective. In this IJTS’s special issue, we have brought together political scientists, IR specialists, communication scholars, and health experts. For more details, please visit here.

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