Kinmen is a pair of two islands right of the coast of China’s Fujian province that are part of Taiwan. Though its geographic position contradicting it’s national ties are not the only thing that’s significant about this area, as it’s one of the few places left in East Asia that the globalization era has yet to wrap its tendrils around. Beyond a couple convenience stores, there are pretty much no international chains operating there. There are no shopping malls, no McDonald’s, not even a single KFC. Instead, the place has temples — lots of temples — small, local restaurants, vegetable markets, antique shops, and corner stores. Shops are decked out with big vertical signs hanging out over streets that are windy and labyrinthine rather than straight and square. The place looks like an old black and white photo of early 20th century China. That said, this is probably one of the best places on the planet to observe the gradual progression of what could be called old Chinese culture.
History of Kinmen
Kinmen was the last stand of the Kuomintang, the Chinese Republican government, during the civil war with the Communists in 1949. They’d already been booted out of the rest of the country and they retreated to a few islands off the coast of Fujian province. Once there they refused to be uprooted. It was a last stand that continues to this day.
Both the PRC, mainland China, and the ROC, Taiwan, claim to be the legitimate government of all of China: Taiwan claims all of China and China claims Taiwan. Technically, the civil war between the two governments continues — a peace accord has never been signed. Neither side acknowledges the legitimacy the other, mutually claiming their foe to be the phony government of China. But they seem to have an uneasy gentleman’s agreement when it comes to Kinmen: though geographically within the bosom of the mainland, it remains administered by Taiwan.
Though Communist China did not initially give up on Kinmen. Two battles were waged during the decade after the civil war, which consisted of anything from full on invasions to frog men sneaking over and wreaking havoc in the night. Eventually, the United States stepped in, and a tenuous peace was imposed between the two Chinas, which has only gotten better as the years went on. Though Kinmen, hovering within sight of the beaches of the mainland, is a stone in the shoe of the PRC — a heckler spouting off from close range.
One of the strangest engagements in military history happened between Xiamen and Kinmen. Unable to take the small island by force, the battle between the PRC and the ROC drew to a stalemate. Both sides sat on their respective shores staring down the other. For twenty one years, from 1958 to 1979, the two armies engaged in an informal ritual: they would take turns shelling each other on alternating days. So one day the Communists would fire bombshells over the narrow straight on to Kinmen and the following day the ROC would return the volley. But these shells were not full of explosives. Rather, they were stuffed full of propaganda leaflets. The Communists shot over communiques on how communism was better, and the Republicans fired claims about how they are the legitimate Chinese government. Literally, hundreds of thousands of propaganda shells were exchanged during this period.
Today of Kinmen
Today, the propaganda war continues, although it’s of a different type. When the Kinmenese look out at the mainland all they see is a Great Wall of Prosperity. Xiamen has built up a new central business district and clusters of upper class high-rises on their eastern shore, which just happens to be right in the direct view of Kinmen. Miles of skyscrapers and luxury apartments rising high into the sky, beaming with bright colorful lights at night, extend down the coastline. When viewed from the shores of Kinmen it looks like a solid, large, prosperous city. Perhaps it was built to make them jealous. Perhaps it was built to make the Kinmenese think that the people of the mainland are living lives of luxury and to make them feel inferior for being born on the wrong side of the straight — in a place that doesn’t have any skyscrapers, luxury high-rises, or even a McDonald’s.
Kinmen is special because it was intentionally under-developed. Since the ROC retreated there during the civil war it’s basically been little other than a military zone. Because of this, most corporations have been kept away and outside investment has been severely limited. The result has been an old Chinese culture that has been allowed to evolve gradually, without the tumultuous turns of post-1949 China and influence from the relatively newly formed Taiwanese identity. But Taiwan has recently been withdrawing its troops, and the isolation of Kinmen is looking as if it is going to end. While you can still find soldiers stomping around Kinmen, and many bases are still very active, their presence is nowhere near the levels they used to be. Taiwan knows that keeping troops on Kinmen and trying to defend these islands is a waste of resources, as the PRC is now too strong and Kinmen far too remote from the main island of Taiwan to seriously defend.
Though such a violent predicament is unlikely to occur — at least not anytime soon. There is a much better chance that the thirst for commerce will settle all disputes between Kinmen and the mainland. There are plans in the works to connect Xiamen and Kinmen with a bridge, at least physically bringing the two Chinas together again, and there are currently cross-straight development projects getting underway. To put it bluntly, the undeveloped beaches and small, traditional villages of Kinmen are the next frontier.
Though as of now, Kinmen is probably one of the best place in the world for seeing what China may have become without the CPC, the SEZs, globalization, internationalization, chain stores, and the obsessive drive to get rich at all cost. This is why I’m going back. I want to know this place a little better before that bridge is built, before the developers begin stepping across that narrow straight, before the small, old villages are replaced with tourist resorts — before it’s all gone.