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Island caught in Taiwan-China tug-of-war

KINMEN ISLAND, Taiwan—An unusual change of sentiment has occurred on this small island nestled against the belly of mainland China.

For decades, the island served as Taiwan's frontline bulwark against possible invasion from China's Red Army. Huge anti-tank barricades still line the beaches, and Taiwanese soldiers monitor movements on the nearby mainland using binoculars.

But fear of colossal China, barely a few miles away, has given way to envy and frustration. Residents gaze across the water and see high-rises and late-model cars. They hear tales of new wealth and economic boom in China. Most can't travel there, though, and few free-spending Chinese tourists are permitted on the 45-minute boat ride to Kinmen Island. Tensions along the Taiwan Strait keep trade and travel to a minimum.

"We think it's nonsense," said Lee Juh-feng, a commissioner for Kinmen (pronounced "GIN mun") and a proponent on the 58-square-mile island for more open trade and freedom of movement.

"Taiwan is holding Kinmen as a pawn," Lee said.

Just as China has a problem with Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, so Taiwan has a problem with the restive little Kinmen archipelago it governs.

Some in Kinmen want to chart a different course. They envision their island as a potential resort and gambling center to attract their onetime foes. But it remains a distant dream. The 66,000 residents of Kinmen, Little Kinmen and half a dozen smaller islands are caught in a cross-strait tug-of-war. They resent both sides and cling to their own identities.

"We are Kinmen people. We are not Taiwanese. But we also aren't Chinese. We are kind of isolated and lonely," said Lee Chi-liang, 46, an engineer.

Kinmen, with its rolling hills and red clay soil, was once a flashpoint. When Nationalist forces retreated from China to Taiwan, routed by the Communists in 1949, they dug in at small islands along the coast of the mainland. For three decades, about 100,000 Taiwanese troops hunkered down on Kinmen. The island was subject to fierce bombardment from the mainland in 1954 and 1958, and even into the 1970s. Both sides set up huge loudspeakers on their shores and blared propaganda at each other.

"The Chinese side would urge us to defect to the mainland," recalled Cheng Shunu, a newspaper clerk. Locals would chuckle at the broadcasts. "We always considered China less developed than us."

The missile bombardments made life on the island tense.

"Every house has a bomb shelter. When the attacks came, we'd go down there," said Wong Ming-chih, a provincial official.

Slowly, China gained short-range missiles and sophisticated jetfighters, making Kinmen a less likely stepping-stone in a possible blitz of Taiwan.

"China can attack Taiwan directly now. They wouldn't come through here," said Liao Jinming, an 18-year-old student.

Troop deployment has fallen to about 10,000 soldiers on Kinmen today, and residents breathe easier. But they feel a sharp economic pinch from the drawdown, with fewer soldiers taking taxis and swilling beer. Kinmen has only one major industry, a distillery that keeps 1,000 families afloat.

Kinmen, an hour-long plane ride from Taipei, hasn't significantly felt the economic miracle in Taiwan, which is now the world's seventh largest economy.

Meanwhile, just across the water in China, the booming port of Xiamen (pronounced SHAH-men) is home to a new Dell computer factory and to Japanese and Taiwanese electronic plants. The waterfront glistens with new shopping centers and flashy restaurants.

The two sides are so close that smugglers deliver fresh produce. The ocean tides bring other deliveries. "A lot of garbage flows over here," said Wong, the provincial official.

Some residents hold out hope for an open border as a panacea to economic woes.

"Xiamen is ahead of us by 50 years," muttered a taxi driver at the port who would only give his last name, Tsai. "Kinmen Island will only develop if the central government allows us to set up casinos and gives us tax-free status."

Some 1 million Taiwanese now live on the mainland, operating factories and doing business. Most of them must travel via Hong Kong or Macao, far to the south.

Under a policy begun last year, a trickle of Taiwanese business owners and their immediate family members can fly to Kinmen Island and take a boat to the mainland, or vice versa. Some 1,000 people a day make the voyage. But they usually go straight to the airport or wharf, bypassing the town.

Lee, the local official, notes what a huge market Kinmen misses out on. Xiamen received 10 million visitors last year, he said, 700,000 of them foreigners. Because of cross-strait red tape, virtually none could come to Kinmen, oh-so-close yet oh-so-far.

"We want to take advantage of Taiwan's legal and democratic system but also of China's economic development," he said.

"You asked if China would ever attack Kinmen," Lee said abruptly. "It would be easier for them just to buy the island."

He said the fair value is about $1 billion, looking as if he were ready to bargain.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TAIWAN-FRONTLINE

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050628 TAIWAN map

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