Taiwan Islands Blossom as China Tensions Ebb

On this front line of the standoff between
China and Taiwan, Cold War tensions are being trumped by the
Chinese crested tern.

Taiwan has cut back its annual military exercises on the islands
of Matsu, just off the mainland Chinese coast, to give the birds
some peace during their breeding season.

It's just one of many vivid signs that China and Taiwan have
found a peace of sorts after decades of angry confrontation.
Another indication is the tourists from Taiwan and China who pour
into Matsu and discover that despite 60 years of separation and
lots of mutually hostile propaganda, they get along fine.

Matsu, a cluster of 36 tiny islands, was regularly shelled in
the 1950s and 1960s from the Chinese mainland just a few miles
away. Now, with tensions at their lowest since China went communist
in 1949 and Taiwan broke away to join the Western camp, those days
are a distant memory.

Taiwan used to designate the islands as part of its "Great Wall
over the Taiwan Strait," dedicated to fending off a Chinese
attack, and some of the islands, one of them just a kilometer (half
a mile) from the Chinese coast, have armed troops, missile defenses
and mock battles.

But in the benign language of today, government tourist
brochures portray Matsu as "a string of loosened pearls."

Since 2001, islanders and their immediate Chinese neighbors have
been able to take the 90-minute boat ride between the Chinese port
of Mawei and the Matsu town of Nankan, allowing people with the
same ancestry to reunite after generations of estrangement. Now any
Chinese or Taiwanese can make the trip.

In the late 1950s, Matsu and another archipelago called Quemoy
took their places alongside Berlin or Korea on the international
map of Cold War flash points. The U.S. sent the 7th Fleet to the
Taiwan Strait to protect Taiwan, and the fate of Quemoy and Matsu
were hot topics in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential race.

China has always claimed Taiwan as a breakaway province, to be
recovered by force if necessary. Taiwan's ruling Nationalist Party
agrees it's Chinese, but says unification - the merger of its
free-market democracy into China's one-party system - is a distant
dream.

Since Taiwanese elected Ma Ying-jeou as president 13 months ago
on his promise to improve ties with China, the islands have been
opened to all mainlanders and Taiwanese, and Matsu officials expect
120,000 visitors this year, triple the 2008 figure.

Still, on Dong Yin, the most fortified islet, a martial
atmosphere abides - holes cut into a granite cliff to store
cannons, sniper portals in a tunnel wall.

On a clear day, military officers say, they can see China's
coastal lowlands through their binoculars. "We won't launch an
attack, but are prepared to confront the missiles if the communists
fire them or if their navy vessels get too close," said Lt. Col.
Wu Tse-yung.

The troops can also spot the Chinese crested tern perching on
coral reefs or skimming across the water.

Long thought extinct, the black-and-white bird was rediscovered
in 2000 in Matsu and nearby areas of China. Authorities have since
demarcated several sanctuaries.

"April to September is the breeding season for the birds so we
try not to disturb them," says Col. Hsu Wen-ming.

On Dong Yin, military facilities are closed to civilians but the
rest of it, with its white 19th century lighthouse and towering
cliffs, is open to tourists.

On nearby Nankan, visitors tour a network of tunnels used during
the Cold War to store rubber landing rafts, armored cars and other
war material. Today Tunnel 88 smells of a famed sorghum liquor
being distilled in the coolness.

Lin Shan-ching ferries some 200 passengers a day between islands
on his speedboat.

Lin's parents came from Changle, then a small town on the
Chinese side. They happened to be in Matsu on business in 1949 and
were stranded there when fighting broke out.

"The civil war forced families to live in separate places but
the authorities could not sever the bonds of kinship," he said.
"I'm glad those tense years are over." As his boat docks at
Nankan, the sun casts a red glow on a decorative stone engraved
with the wartime slogan, "Weapon at the ready all through the
night." The disembarking passengers barely give it a glance.


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