Taiwan residents flee remote islands as China severs internet sea cables
Life has been quieter than usual for residents of Taiwan on an outlying archipelago that is lined with sleepy fishing villages lapped by ocean waves.
Those in the Matsu islands have been cut off from the outside world after two submarine internet cables were severed by Chinese ships last month.
All of a sudden, messages stopped sending, online videos weren’t loading, bank transfers failed, and even credit cards couldn’t be swiped.
“Calls cut off midway; it’s pretty annoying,” grumbled Lin Shengyue, 80. “But it’s more of a problem for the young people glued to their mobiles.”
“That’s why all of them ran off to the main [Taiwan] island,” he laughed. “The only ones left are old fogies like me and the soldiers stationed here.”
The internet outage has highlighted a critical security vulnerability – that Taiwan can’t safeguard its communications in the event of a war with China.
“The incident in Matsu actually serves as a warning sign for Taiwan to better prepare its backup plans,” said Lii Wen, head of the Matsu chapter of the country’s leading Democratic Progressive Party. “What would we do if Taiwan’s 14 international sea cables were damaged?”
Cables in Matsu have been snapped 27 times in the past five years, often by Chinese fishing vessels dropping anchors and dragging fishing nets.
But this is the longest internet blackout residents have experienced, as repair ships won’t arrive until the end of April to fix the cables – more than 300 miles long and about the width of a garden hose.
“Locals like me, we wonder if China cut the cables on purpose,” said Mr Lin. “If we really were in wartime, this would be a very serious situation.”
Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao Zedong, has repeatedly vocalised his intent to annex Taiwan, a territory with its own democratic government that Beijing claims as part of China.
US intelligence indicates that Mr Xi has instructed the military to be ready to invade by 2027.
Disrupting Taiwan’s internet in the event of war could obstruct the government’s ability to seek help from other nations and to reassure its public.
Cutting the cables is a “way of showing that [China] can disrupt the information environment, whether that be civilian, commercial or military,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
Shoring up Taiwan’s communications is a growing priority for the government, especially as China has sought to control the installation and maintenance of cables running through international waters it claims as its territory. Most of the world’s online traffic runs through these cables.
But proposals for just how to do that reflect the complicated discourse in government and among the public on how best to position Taiwan given China’s increasingly bellicose stance.
There are plans to install a surveillance system for the cables, though long-term options have been in the works after Taiwan observed Russia’s cyberattacks during its invasion of Ukraine.
The Taiwanese ministry of digital affairs is looking for multiple low-earth satellite operators to provide the internet in a crisis, though a law requires them to be majority-owned by a domestic shareholder.
Diversifying is key to create a “honeypot” setup that could expose any cyber attackers and prevent Taiwan’s communications from being shut down if one provider is incapacitated.
If “you put all your eggs into one basket, then of course you’re also saying that you lose everything if that basket holder cuts the basket,” Audrey Tang, minister of digital affairs, told The Telegraph.
“Our main idea is just diversity, and working with as many trustworthy vendors as possible.”
She is also planning to roll out mobile non-geostationary satellite receivers to 700 domestic locations and three international ones over the next year.
We need to “make sure that this kind of service moves beyond one single county or one single town, so that every county and city in Taiwan has at least one that they can use,” she said.
Others have mooted going in a different direction.
County chief Wang Chung-ming hopped on a ferry to China, and suggested to Chinese officials and a state-owned telecoms company that a new cable be installed between Matsu and the mainland.
After his trip, Mr Wang posted online about pushing forward on “The New Four Links,” first mentioned by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2019, during an annual speech about Taiwan.
Mr Xi’s proposal, emblazoned on a sign in Jieshou – Matsu’s largest village and the seat of the local government – calls for a land bridge to China, plus shared electricity, water and natural gas.
None of this is without precedent. Three undersea cables already connect Taiwan to China, laid about a decade ago, and jointly owned by telecommunications firms from both sides.
Kinmen, another outlying Taiwanese archipelago, even gets its water from the mainland, and proposals for a land bridge continue to be floated after one connecting two islands in the grouping – just 5,000 meters at its closest point to the Chinese coast – opened last year.
Spectre of war grows
But ties with China, in any form, are under intense debate in Taiwan as the spectre of war grows.
The Matsu and Kinmen island groupings are particularly vulnerable given their proximity to the mainland, and some experts think they could be attacked first in a potential invasion in a piecemeal approach, similar to how Russia first annexed Crimea.
It’s a complicated issue for Matsu’s 14,000 residents, who can see the Chinese mainland from their shores. Along with Kinmen, Matsu has long been on the frontlines of a decades-long struggle for dominance between China and Taiwan.
In 1949, Chairman Mao established the People’s Republic of China, led by his Communist Party, after a civil war forced Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Nationalist Party to retreat to Taiwan.
Mr Chiang set up a rival China – Taiwan, Republic of China – and proceeded, like Mr Mao, to rule with an iron fist.
Amphibious assaults and constant shelling pockmarked Matsu and Kinmen throughout a cold war, with Mao’s China and Chiang’s Taiwan vowing to conquer the other to form one, powerful Chinese nation.
Propaganda encouraged people to switch loyalties and defectors were given cash rewards, until the drumbeat of war faded in Taiwan, as it began democratising in the late 1980s.
These days, despite its shared culture, language and ancestry, the idea of a unified country is little more than a pipe dream.
“The two sides have developed way too differently now,” said a man who runs a souvenir shop in Nangan, Matsu’s biggest island.
Soldiers remain a fixture in Matsu, on guard against another attack, and bunkers poke out of the granite sea cliffs.
“These tunnels will come in handy if we go to war,” said Mr Lin, gesturing at old military infrastructure.
“But I hope that we don’t have to use these again,” he sighed. “Because if we did, that would mean we’re at war, and all those sent to battle will be our children.”
For now, the decommissioned military installations draw tourists to this remote corner that used to be off-limits, except for troops and residents.
One of the main attractions is a giant red-and-white sign atop a hill facing China – a four-character idiom that calls for soldiers to sleep on their spears – a call for battle-readiness, erected in 1958.
The stopgap solution to Matsu’s problem is microwave transmission beamed from a mountain just outside of Taipei – barely enough to meet half the island’s bandwidth demand, but better than nothing.
A Taiwanese telecom office also set up a wi-fi hotspot for locals to use, which made it the buzziest place in town.
“For a while, I asked colleagues not to attach PDFs or Word documents, and to let me know if they really had to send a file so I could head over there,” said Mr Lii. “It kind of turned into an internet cafe.”
Some have taken advantage of the cutoff to enjoy some downtime. Hong Zhiyin, 28, who only moved to Matsu three months ago, said she devoured books and enjoyed star-gazing.
But it is impossible to forget that she lives on the frontline of a conflict that may erupt at any moment.
“When I first got here, I often heard artillery fire at night – I’m not sure which side it was coming from,” she said.
“At first I was a little startled, but it’s my hope that we won’t resort to war, to such barbaric means, so easily.”