The knife-maker of Kinmen island, Wu Tseng-dong, has an unusual business model. When he was a boy, in the 1950s, he witnessed explosive shells – launched from the Chinese mainland two miles away – falling on his birthplace. As he explains: “479,000 rounds were fired in 44 days. We lived in fear.” Little did Wu Tseng-dong know then, but the People’s Liberation Army was supplying him with the raw material for his future livelihood: today he makes knives from those shells to sell to tourists from the mainland.
Reporter Jane Corbin’s gripping analysis of rising tensions between the People’s Republic of China (capital: Beijing; leader: Xi Jinping; population: 1.4 billion) and the Republic of China (capital: Taipei; current leader: Tsai Ing-wen; population: 23 million) examines the possibility of history not just repeating itself, but of tensions escalating so far as to cause the return to geopolitical discourse of that quaint old term, nuclear Armageddon. In this scenario, Beijing bombards not just the little island of Kinmen (slightly bigger than Bute), but Taiwan itself (roughly the size of Switzerland), in order to reunify China. But it thereby embroils the US, provoking a worldwide conflict that would, so far as I understand it, depress global economic growth predictions even more than the coronavirus pandemic.
Certainly, the Taiwanese people whom Corbin interviews are preparing for the worst case scenario. Ever since democratic Ukraine was invaded this time last year by an authoritarian superpower, the numbers of Taiwanese people paying to train at private military camps has risen exponentially, compulsory military service has been increased from four to 12 months, and Taipei’s “porcupine strategy” now involves stocking up on anti-air, anti-tank and anti-ship weapons so that a smaller force can frustrate a larger (Chinese forces are 12 times bigger than Taiwan’s, Corbin tells us) in line with Kyiv’s example. Tsai Ing-wen’s two-term presidency, which comes to an end later this year, is predicated on retaining Taiwanese democracy in the face of Beijing’s offer of reunification under an approach of “one country, two systems”. That principle which, as the relatively recent crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong demonstrated so clearly, means nothing in practice.
But, will Beijing really invade Taiwan? Astutely, Corbin interviews Frank Huang of Powerchip Technology Corp, one of the many Taiwanese companies that makes the island the world centre for computer chips. Of the world’s advanced superconductors, 90% are made here. “Your car, your refrigerator, your PC – without Taiwan, it won’t work,” says Huang. Huang’s corollary? China dare not invade, since any war would threaten to destroy this most valuable of industries, whose lucrative secrets Beijing covets.
This is perhaps true, but China and the US are working hard to develop their own superconductor industries. Taiwanese partners are working with US firms in Arizona to achieve just this. Beijing, Corbin reports, is using spies to uncover Taiwan’s superconductor secrets so it can manufacture its own, but, she estimates, Taiwan will remain a world leader in this vital industry for the next 10 years. Plus, any invasion is estimated to cost China trillions of dollars.
Instead, war is being fought in the grey zone of cyberspace rather than on battlefields. Cyber hacking expert Puma Shen, of Doublethink Lab, estimates Taiwan is hit by 12m cyber-attacks a month. The country is subject to more disinformation than Twitter and Donald Trump’s social media platform Truth Social combined. Taiwan’s first transgender government minister, Audrey Tang, a former hacker turned minister of digital affairs, says disinformation has included homophobic fake news suggesting that Taiwan’s mooted same-sex marriage legislation would result in droves of HIV patients arriving from the rest of the world bent on receiving free treatment. Untrue, Tang says. But, as we in the west know from our own masters of post-truth politics, Trump and Johnson, little lies soon grow long legs.
Sadly, Corbin couldn’t get face time with president Xi to set out his Taiwanese policy. Instead, she has the wonderful Victor Gao, fluent yet chilling media spokesperson for the Chinese Communist party. Gao only needs a stroked cat on his lap to truly perfect his Bond villain aura, as he tells Corbin: “The future of Taiwan will never be decided by the 23 million people of Taiwan themselves. The future of Taiwan will be decided by the more than 1.4 billion on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”
The implication is clear: the rest of the world would do well to keep out of this domestic affair. Happily, history tells us, if nothing else, the world won’t listen to his advice.