"Golden Gate" between China and Taiwan

"Golden Gate" between China and Taiwan


Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to hold surprise talks with his counterpart on neighbouring Taiwan, the first meeting of leaders from the two rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949. The meeting, weeks ahead of Taiwanese elections in January, coincides with rising anti-China sentiment on Taiwan.

The tiny Taiwan-held island of Kinmen, or "Golden Gate”, is the front line between China and Taiwan. Soldiers regularly conduct military drills repelling attacks by Chinese Communist troops from the mainland. Beaches were mined and shots traded up until as recently as the mid-1970s.

. Kinmen, Taiwan. Reuters/Pichi Chuang

The meeting will be held in Singapore, with both sides saying the leaders will discuss cross-strait ties. When Taiwan goes to the polls the pro-China Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), is likely to lose to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which traditionally favours independence from China.

"Of course I am worried about war,” said Kinmen bar owner Sam Chen, 29, as he watched recent live-fire drills with fellow residents. “But I also hope Kinmen can build closer ties with China. It's easier for us young people to make money."

Rustic Kinmen, with a population of less than 129,000, illustrates that tension. It’s a half-hour ferry ride to China, but it takes an hour to fly to major Taiwan cities. Just off the island’s shores, glass-walled high-rises wink seductively from the booming mainland port of Xiamen in one of China's most prosperous provinces.

. Kinmen, Taiwan. Reuters/Pichi Chuang
Local residents take pictures during the annual Han Kuang military exercise.

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who steps down next year due to term limits, has made improving economic links with China a key policy since he took office in 2008. He has signed landmark business and tourism deals, though there has been no progress in resolving their political differences.

On Kinmen, there may soon be free-for-all landings of Chinese shoppers and businessmen. The island, eyeing closer commercial ties with China, wants to pipe water from Xiamen and plans to build a bridge and set up a glittering free trade zone with the city.

. Kinmen, Taiwan. Reuters/Pichi Chuang
An elderly woman poses in front of a bullet-riddled wall of her house.

The island of Kinmen's growth is supported by Chinese visitors drawn to reminders of war such as weather-beaten pillboxes, the beach defences, bullet holes in buildings and graffiti proclaiming: "Eliminate the Communists".

Kinmen county chief Chen Fu-hai has a three-year roadmap to build a "special economic zone" in which Kinmen can share Xiamen's economy. The proposal is being promoted by a pro-Beijing, non-profit organization in Taiwan with close ties to the Communist Party.

. Kinmen, Taiwan. Reuters/Pichi Chuang
Huang Chin-chi, 92, poses for a photograph in his living room.

Beijing has claimed Taiwan since the KMT fled to the island after losing the civil war against Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949. China is seeking unification with Taiwan under its "one country, two systems" formula by which Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Kinmen is a test for China's ambitions to recover Taiwan through soft power. If Beijing can't win over tiny Kinmen, what chance does it have to convince the other 23 million on the main island of Taiwan?

. Kinmen, Taiwan. Reuters/Pichi Chuang
A woman collects oysters on a beach near anti-landing barricades.

As for the meeting, slated for November 7, political experts said China could be working to shape the result of the elections by trying to show that ties would continue to improve if Taiwan remains ruled by the KMT.

Some said it could backfire, given increasing anti-China protests, especially among the young. In what was seen as a backlash against creeping dependence on China, the KMT was trounced in local elections last year. Younger Taiwanese in particular worry about Beijing's influence.

. Kinmen, Taiwan. Reuters/Pichi Chuang

On the island of Kinmen - the site of a brand new, six-storey, duty-free shopping mall, billed as the largest in Asia - county chief Chen wants water, electricity and natural gas to be pumped from neighbouring Xiamen.

“In Kinmen, we can do what Taiwan can't, what Taiwan doesn't dare do," he said.