China bridge plans raise suspicions in Taiwan

Nicola Smith
A radar station operates from a clifftop on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen which, at points lies only a few miles from China - Getty Images AsiaPac

In 1958, China pummeled the tiny outlying Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu with hundreds of thousands of shells, flattening homes and killing scores of civilians as the Communists tried to advance against the Chinese Nationalist Party who had fled to Taipei.

More than 50 years later, political tensions remain high between Taipei and Beijing but China now wants to build a bridge to the islands, claiming it will help boost their economic development.

Taiwan, however, fears the move is just another provocative strategy to divide and conquer its territory, which China claims as its own. Some have accused Beijing of floating the bridge project to try to meddle in its upcoming election this January. 

The Chinese media reported last week on the launch of an ambitious blueprint to construct bridges between Xiamen, a 3.5-million-strong city in its southeastern Fujian province, to Taiwan’s Kinmen, Matsu and Fuzhou islands. 

On October 13, 40 experts from both sides of the Taiwan Strait met in the provincial capital, Fuzhou, to discuss a project that would create a favourable environment for people from Taiwan to work and live in mainland China, said Ma Xioaguang, a spokesperson with the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office. 

An old Western style house still bears bullet holes and damage from the Battle of Guningtou, an attempted invasion of Kinmen by Communist forces in 1949 Credit: Carl Court/Getty 

According to Taiwan News, Meng Fanchao, the chief designer of the world’s longest sea bridge between Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau, expressed confidence that any technical difficulties could be overcome.  

But Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, a government body responsible for relations with China, was swift to reject the proposal on Monday, accusing Beijing of a unilateral manoeuvre to “divide Taiwan.” 

China “does not respect our democratic values and institutions,” it said in a statement, adding that the bridge plan was a “complex and sensitive” issue. 

Jason Hsu, a leading politician with the opposition Kuomintang party suggested China was trying to score points with the Taiwanese public during election season.  “The Chinese government does all sorts of things to influence Taiwan, such as offering benefits or policies,” he said. 

“In this case offering a bridge to Kinmen and Matsu, which is unrealistic because if you were to extend a construction to another country it just cannot be done in this way,” he added. “This is more of a hoax, or election language.” 

Beijing has also been accused of trying to sway Taiwan’s election in more negative ways – by poaching from its small coterie of formal diplomatic allies to isolate Taipei internationally, and by switching off a lucrative stream of mainland tourists to the island. 

View over Xiamen City in Fujian province from Dadan Island's beach Credit: Alberto Buzzola/LightRocket

China has long harboured ambitions to annex Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million, which functions like any other nation with its own government, currency and military. 

On Kinmen itself, relations with China have vastly improved since the days of sonic warfare when its “Beishan broadcasting wall,” a 30-foot-tall construction of 45 loudspeakers would blast out songs from the late Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng towards Xiamen, 1.2 miles away. 

Leftover shell casings from the bombs that once terrorised islanders are now being transformed into world-famous kitchen knives by Wu Tseng-dong, a local craftsman, and his thriving family business.  

Meanwhile, Kinmen, an hour’s flight from Taiwan’s capital Taipei, has already turned to China to resolve the long-term water shortages that were threatening the production of its potent, sorgum-based liquor – Kaoliang. 

Water imports from Fujian to supply the 130,000 inhabitants allow the groundwater to be reserved for liquor stocks, a major source of revenue, claim local officials. 

A Kinmen County Government spokesperson said the deputy director of the public works bureau had attended the bridge meeting, but added that the local authorities would “cooperate with central government policy.”

Taipei is unlikely to give the green light any time soon. 

Taiwan was a “sovereign state” and plans to build through its land would require negotiations with its government, said Jason Lin, from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

“China is a country that requires extra caution to deal with due to its continuous hostility toward Taiwan with the threat of military invasion,” he said. “Bridges that link Taiwan and China directly will trigger concerns regarding national security and the plan is unlikely to go through under current circumstance.”