What if war comes?

Huang Pei-yu@Manbo Key
Young people in Taiwan are growing up with the fear that their country could be attacked by China. That would be the end of their freedoms. Nevertheless, they hold on to their optimism

Tim Lu pushes his bicycle through a park in Yilan, a city between mountains and sea in northern Taiwan; populated by half a million inhabitants. Here, on the shore of a lake, he says, they often sit together in the evenings. His friends and he. The grass so green, the lake so blue, the swans so white. Unlike in many European countries, there is no litter lying around, no beer bottles or cigarette butts. Children play giggling softly with their grandparents.

On their evenings in the park, Tim says, they listen to music together, laugh and chat: about school, about falling in love, about the fact that now, at 18, they will all soon be starting new lives. Almost never, he says, do they talk about the fact that a war might be coming.

Tim Lu has many projects: He visits a Waldorf school – theater projects, a blacksmithing class, basketball. His podcast, „The Voice of High School,“ has 200 listeners. The near future is exciting, euphoric, and sometimes a little scary for him: high school graduation, then work and travel in Australia, and after he returns, he wants to study sports journalism in Taiwan. Think fast, talk fast, he can do that. His teachers have told him that he formulates very well, „that made me happy,“ he says. He likes to discuss big questions, such as: What is the good life?

Tim Lu grew up in one of the richest countries in the world, in a democracy. He has talents, ideals, plans for the future, good friends, and a particularly close relationship with his father. His teachers, he says, are so idealistic „that they even take care of us in their free time.“

But sometimes a thought creeps into his mind: What if war comes? What if he has to fight? „I can’t imagine picking up a rifle,“ he says. „Shooting someone. Being a murderer.“ He shakes his head. „I don’t want to die.“ He squints his eyes. „My first thought would be to flee. But my family is here. If we could all escape, together, that would be great. I know it sounds selfish, but that would be good.“ But where, he asks, should they go? „This is my home. If the Chinese come, oppress us, then I would get very angry. And with that anger in my belly, then maybe I could imagine going to war after all.“

Throughout his life, Tim has been taught to resolve conflicts peacefully. He doesn’t like fighting. And now he’s supposed to learn to shoot?

Tim Lu @Manbo Key

Tim knows the origin of the conflict from his parents‘ stories. From 1927 to 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong and their parties, the Kuomintang and the Communists, had torn each other apart in the Chinese Civil War. After Chiang was defeated in 1949, he packed art treasures and other wealth onto ships, and two million people crossed over to Taiwan, where mostly Chinese who had earlier migrated lived. Both Kuomintang and Communists declared themselves the representatives of the true China and vowed to defeat the enemy one day. Chiang established a dictatorship on Taiwan, and it was not until 1996 that the first free presidential elections were held. Even if China does not recognize it: Taiwan is de facto independent.

When Tim came into the world in 2005, China was already on its way to becoming a world power and was arming itself vigorously. Taiwan, on the other hand, became more peaceful and shortened its military service. Now the government in Beijing sends military aircraft into the Taiwanese air defense zone almost daily, China’s party secretary Xi Jinping increasingly threatens to push for reunification, and the Economist calls Taiwan the most dangerous place in the world because the two superpowers, the United States and China, could clash here. For a long time, the Taiwanese took all this with astonishing composure. Since Vladimir Putin marched his army into Ukraine, however, even many people who had been rather relaxed until then have begun to worry. When the Taiwanese government decided last December to extend compulsory military service from four months to one year, almost 80 percent of the people were in favor.

Tim, too, will soon have to do his military service. As soon as he finishes his studies, he will have to join the military for a year. „Half of the students in our class were born in 2004,“ Tim says. „I was born in 2005, and unlike them, I have to do a year of military service. My friends laughed at me.“ Tim sighs. „If the point of military service was to get fit and make friends, then fine. But war?“ The idea of serving as a soldier in a war against the People’s Republic of China is terrifying, and not just to Tim Lu: an island of 23.5 million people against a technologically advanced superpower of 1.4 billion. The island would be easy to cut off from the rest of the world. Taiwanese soldiers would then face the enemy alone. Taiwan’s allies could at most attack invading forces from the outside.

„We don’t have any problems with the Chinese, only with their government,“ says Tim. „I don’t even know what China is like, I’ve never been there. We should resist, but to what point? Yes, if the U.S. would help us and the whole world … But what if they don’t?“

Salizan, Liugui

Salizan dances. The 24-year-old’s arms swirl through the air, driving lasciviously along his head, he turns his torso, gyrates his hips, as if he were standing on a stage in the middle of a club, as if the lights of a strobe were flashing there – but he dances alone in his family’s living room, in Liugui, a remote village of 13,000 people, deep in southern Taiwan. He spins in front of a wall full of photos of deceased ancestors, in front of an embroidered picture of the Last Supper with the words „Christ is Lord of this house.“ The family is part of the Christian minority in Taiwan; the largest religions here are Buddhism and Daoism. A smorgasbord in the living room closet: grandfather’s whiskey bottles, blond dolls in plastic wrapping, the skull of a pig, „maybe a wild boar,“ Salizan says, „anyway, my grandfather once hunted it.“ Add to that the trophies Salizan won as a dancer.

Salizan and his family are from the Bunun tribe. The Bunun and other Austronesian peoples lived in Taiwan long before the first Han settlers arrived from the mainland. They displaced the indigenous people, the Yuanzhumin, and some tribes disappeared. Now the indigenous people make up only two percent of the population. Salizan also has a Chinese name, Hung Yu-Chun.

„The Bunun, more than any other people, celebrate the strong man who is willing to hunt alone,“ Salizan says. He feels like a man, too, but not always. „Today I feel more like a man, more like a woman when I dance, that’s why I love voguing so much: Because I can do what I want, because I can express what I feel inside.“

„The Bunun, more than any other people, celebrate the strong man who is willing to hunt alone,“ Salizan says. He feels like a man, too, but not always. „Today I feel more like a man, more like a woman when I dance, that’s why I love voguing so much: Because I can do what I want, because I can express what I feel inside.“

Salizan © Manbo Key

Salizan learned the traditional dances and songs of the Bunun as a child. He was eight or ten when he discovered voguing, a dance style developed by gay blacks and Latinos in New York in the 1970s, in a music video by a Taiwanese pop singer. They drew inspiration from the poses of models in Vogue fashion magazine, hence the name. „I was enchanted,“ Salizan says. „It has so much power and is so elegant at the same time.“ He learned the dance style by watching all the YouTube videos on it he could find. „At first I was alone, but then I infected my friends, and they started voguing, too.“ Not long after, Salizan discovered that he was more attracted to men than women. He dances every day, „whether I’m sad, angry or happy.“ Dancing, he said, gave him the ability to love his body, „no matter if it’s fat or thin.“ He uploads his videos, filmed in his living room or in clubs, on Instagram.

Salizan has lived in different cities, studied dance and enjoyed queer life. But because Taipei eventually became far too expensive for him, he moved back to his family in the countryside two years ago. He looked for a job at the front desk of a small hospital. He wants to save money because he wants to perform abroad, preferably in New York, the birthplace of voguing.

In Liugui District, Salizan walks past pensioners dozing in the sun, and as he walks, his arms continue to dance through the air. Monkeys play in the bamboo forest above his head, butterflies flutter about, tropical shrubs bloom along the roadside. Liugui and its surroundings are paradisiacally beautiful – like so many places on this island, which Portuguese sailors once called „Formosa,“ „the beautiful one.“ Salizan takes a deep breath and says, „Feels soooo good here, doesn’t it?“

No one in Liugui seems to be greatly bothered by Salizan’s appearance, his blue contact lenses and blond streaked hair. He has never felt discriminated against here, he says.

In 2019, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to allow homosexuals to marry, and the annual Pride Parade in Taiwan is the most glittering on the continent. „For me personally, the law is not that important,“ Salizan says. „I don’t want to get married. I don’t fall in love. I get a lot of love from family and friends. You can feel love in so many ways, through painting, dancing, listening to music.“

Salizan, meanwhile, can imagine taking the exam for a civil service career. „My friends ask, how is that possible: a voguing civil servant?“ Salizan smiles, „But I say, why? It’s fun.“

On weekends, he packs his going-out clothes in a bag, takes a bus to the nearest high-speed rail station, still 90 bus stops away, and heads to his aunt’s house in Taipei. There he transforms himself with the help of makeup and flashy clothes, goes to the balls, the voguing competitions, the big queer party. The aunt accompanies him. „In Liugui I charge my battery, but in Taipei I burn,“ Salizan says. It’s like a game, he says. „I’ve found my balance.“

Salizan dances back and forth between the island’s extremes, between north and south, urban and rural, a culture that celebrates the strong man and one where the lines between men and women are blurred. If you follow Salizan, you begin to understand how complex the Taiwanese cosmos is. Taiwan’s location aroused the ambition of foreign powers early on, and the island is shaped by many cultures. The island has been shaped by many cultures: by indigenous peoples and the Chinese, by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Spanish, by the former Japanese colonial power and its American allies. And the tougher Xi Jinping gets on the mainland, the more Taiwan presents itself as the other China: open and diverse. But if you follow Salizan, you also realize that you can live here without worrying in the least about war. Politics, he says, shrugging, don’t interest him. „Haven’t they been threatening to take us for so long, and nothing has happened? If it happens, it happens. That’s the government’s business, but not us regular people.“

Bailey Ye, Taipei

It’s Saturday, Bailey Ye, 27, could sit in peace in front of one of the video games she loves so much. She could let herself fall completely into this other universe, barely sleeping for three days and nights in a row, as she often did as a teenager, and forget about the world outside. Because what happened out there, she used to think, was none of her business.

Instead, she now sits at a table in the hallway of the computer science institute at Academia Sinica University and tries to inspire complete strangers to stand up for democracy. She seems a bit shy about it, yet she does a good job, smiling, looking for common ground with the people who have come here to be enlightened by her.

She didn’t care about politics for a long time, just like most of the computer science students around her. Then came 2019: „When I turned on the TV, I saw people demonstrating in Hong Kong,“ she says. Two million of Hong Kong’s 7.6 million residents took to the streets at the time. They were trying to resist Beijing’s taking away the democratic rights they had been promised when it took over Hong Kong in 1997. „One country, two systems“ was the formula according to which Hong Kong was to retain its liberal social order for another 50 years. Now, however, freedoms were being curtailed piece by piece: Beijing’s governor-government wanted to push through a law that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to China. „It was so bad,“ Bailey says. „How the police dispersed protesters with batons, pepper spray and plastic bullets, arrested people. How they surrounded a university and some of the students tried to escape through the sewers.“ All this could happen in Taiwan, too, she thought. „We Taiwanese, too, have been offered the ‚one country, two systems‘ formula by Beijing.“

Taiwan: Bailey Ye, 27, engagiert sich als Informatikerin und Hackerin für eine Organisation, die die Demokratie stärken will. Mit ihren Mitstreitern arbeitet sie an einer Informationsplattform zur Präsidentschafts- und Parlamentswahl im nächsten Jahr.

Bailey Ye  © Manbo Key

Bailey decided to do something. A college friend took her to a hackathon organized by g0v, a hacker collective. Using open-source software whose source code is freely available, the civic hackers want to contribute to democracy. For example, by making election donations to Taiwanese politicians public, organizing emergency workers in the event of a train accident, or combating disinformation in social media.

Today, four years later, Bailey is still at it as a hacker.

And so, an hour earlier on that Saturday morning, she sat in a lecture hall at the institute with about a hundred fellow participants, all with laptops on their laps and introducing themselves in turn: AI engineers and experts in machine learning and robotics, doctors, philosophers, data visualization specialists, lawyers, game designers, economists, financial experts. „Software engineer,“ Bailey says when it’s her turn. They’ve all come here to lend their time and expertise in service to the community and democracy. Most earn good money – like Bailey, who develops websites for an advertising firm. Every two months, g0v members meet. They combine technology, civic-mindedness and activism into an exciting melange – and because one of the hackers, Audrey Tang, has become digital minister, this thinking is also working its way into government. In more than a decade of existence, they’ve kicked off more than 900 projects on a wide range of topics.

Two young women join Bailey Ye at the table. „We’re working on a digital election guide,“ she explains to them. „It will help voters make their decision when we elect the president and members of parliament next January.“ In Taiwan, Bailey says, election campaigns are always very confrontational and emotional: „There is very little objective information. We want to provide the guidance that we ourselves lack.“ The election guide aims to make as much information as possible about the candidates accessible. To do this, Bailey and her fellow campaigners are scouring websites, parliamentary and government databases, finding out how MPs have voted in the past. For all of this, Bailey explains to the two women, „we need volunteer researchers.“

The three women get chatting. They end up talking about the Sunflower Movement of 2014, which shaped their generation. Back then, students occupied parliament for 24 days because they felt betrayed by politics. At the time, President Ma Ying-jeou and his Kuomintang party were seeking a comprehensive free trade agreement with the Chinese Communist Party. The students feared that China would creep into taking over Taiwan. Hackers from g0v networked the students, and the protest was streamed live. In the end, they carried off a victory, the free trade agreement was overturned. „I would have loved to have gone then,“ Bailey tells the two women. „But I was only 18, and my parents wouldn’t let me go, they were afraid there would be clashes.“ – „We felt the same way,“ say the two women, who are both Bailey’s age.

Bailey joined the project just before the 2020 elections. „I was afraid the Kuomintang would win and bring us closer to China.“ Even then, they were putting together their guide. „The project changed me. I now ask everyone if they voted. But I don’t think we all have to choose the same thing.“

There are only two people Bailey doesn’t talk politics with: her parents. „I’m afraid I’ll hurt them.“ Her parents grew up when Taiwan was a dictatorship. „They witnessed the terror and how neighbors were arrested.“ Chiang Kai-shek’s persecuted communists and dissenters. He imposed martial law, which his son did not lift until 1987. „My parents behave,“ Bailey says, „as if we were still in a dictatorship.“ Chiang Kai-shek also wanted to bring long-established Taiwanese into line. After decades of Japanese colonialism, many of them no longer spoke High Chinese, but Taiwanese, a southern Chinese dialect. From now on, this was forbidden in school. Chiang Kai-shek hoped to reconquer China one day. To him, Taiwan was just a tiny island of the great empire.

„We were forced by the Kuomintang to feel Chinese,“ says Professor Yu Ching-hsin of the Electoral Study Center at National Chengchi University in Taipei. Once that pressure eased, that changed. Just 30 years ago, only 18 percent of people saw themselves exclusively as Taiwanese; now the figure is more than 60 percent, and among the young, more than 83 percent.

These are figures that make the government in Beijing nervous. The few who still dream of reunification with China will soon die. Only six percent of the population can still imagine it. Because the government in Beijing threatens war if Taiwan formally declares independence, nearly 85 percent of Taiwanese want to maintain the status quo. At the same time, young Taiwanese celebrate their identity with abandon. They turn to their own culture and history, celebrate Taiwanese cuisine, music, theater and literature, the architectural heritage, teahouses, cafés and bars. Resistance also resonates in this: We are not China.

Bailey Ye says that she recently took part in a survival training course. Recently, many such courses have been offered in Taiwan. She learned first aid and where to find refuge in the event of a bomb attack. „Most of the people who took part believe there will be no war,“ she says. „The atmosphere was quite cheerful and relaxed. In Taiwan, we use the word wan for these classes, which means ‚to play.‘ We say, ‚Come, let’s play survival training.'“

Hung Chün-yü und Hung Chün-chi, Taipeh

For a long time, the brothers Hung Chün-yü, 33, and Hung Chün-chi, 29, didn’t even realize the treasure they were sitting on: all the strange rites and cults they had experienced in their childhood. Their grandfather’s funeral ceremony, where a master of ceremonies whipped himself to dispel a water curse. The professional mourners who wept over the dead while crawling on the ground for money. The pig that worshippers fattened to ludicrous size to please the gods. The strippers hired to perform a strip show in honor of this pig. The wafting sound of keyboards that emanated from many temples at the time, and which today flows into the music they make with their band Mong Tong.

Mong Tong © Manbo Key

The exuberant religious and mystical life that unfolded with economic growth in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s seemed normal to the brothers at the time. „It wasn’t until we moved to Taipei and told our foreign friends about it that we realized how extreme it all was,“ Chün-yü says.

He sits with his brother Chün-chi in their store, a tiny flower store with terrariums lined up on shelves. Each of them houses a tiny universe of ferns, creepers, bamboo and mosses. Small forests and mountains, enchanted thickets, mysterious fairy worlds. The brothers cannot yet make a living from their music. That’s why Chün-chi, who studied finance, runs this flower store with a friend. Chün-yü, who has a degree in English, works in a store that sells telescopes. Their passion is Mong Tong, their psychedelic rock band. Chün-yü, curls, glasses, alert look, is a producer and plays bass. Chün-chi, long hair, open smile, plays guitar and keyboard. Both play synthesizers. Mong Tong is a celebration of mystery. What moves the brothers is not so much religion per se, but the weird, absurd, mysterious in a country whose folk religion, Taoism, knows countless gods, spirits and cults.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Chün-chi recounts, Taiwan’s television ran shows in which necromancers communicated with the dead on camera. Mong Tong sample video and audio tracks from the old broadcasts. „Our revenge on capitalism,“ Chün-yü says, laughing, „We use the cheapest entertainment television and recycle it.“ The band is a total work of art. At performances, the brothers wear blindfolds, an homage to a cult whose blindfolded followers talk to the dead.

When they toured Europe in 2019, Chün-chi says, „a lot of people didn’t know Taiwan. On our tour last year, everyone knew it. Many spoke encouragement to us.“ Both brothers are pessimistic about the future, but there is one good thing about the international attention: Taiwanese artists can use it to promote their country’s music, literature and culture. And that is quite important for a country that is officially recognized by only twelve countries worldwide and the Vatican.

Mong Tong also indirectly tell something about China with their music and productions, because most of the gods of the Taiwanese pantheon, the cults, the customs originally come from the mainland. But many of them are no longer found there. Temples and statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, monks and nuns were beaten and re-educated. Today, religious life in the People’s Republic is strictly controlled. In Taiwan, however, where all kinds of temples can be found on countless corners, religious life seems surprisingly diverse even compared to Europe. Taiwan has also preserved elements of traditional Chinese culture in other areas. For example, unlike the Chinese, the Taiwanese still write with traditional long characters. But the Taiwanese are not simply preserving their Chinese heritage. Under the conditions of a democracy and in exchange with other cultures, it continues to develop in its own way.

Chen Chao-Jung, New Taipei

When Chen Chao-Jung, 29, arrives at the park, she bends over what looks like a baby carriage and takes out her mustache Ah-Mei. Together they walk through the park. They look great doing it, personable, in a good mood – and they’re well dressed: Chen Chao-Jung wears a black blouse, Ah-Mei a pretty knitted sweater. The light is soft, perfect for the photos Chao-Jung’s partner Chiu Yen-Chieh takes of them. Later, they’ll put the photos on Instagram.

Chao-Jung is a dog influencer. Together with her schnauzer Ah-Mei, she visits hotels, restaurants and dog spas, tests the latest dog strollers and goes shopping at dog stores. As a photographer, Yen-Chieh specializes in pets and their owners. In a way, the couple with dog seems like the perfect family. Sometimes their cat Mili is also present. In photos, she sits next to Ah-Mei in the dog cart.

Chen Chao-Jung and Ah-Mei  © Manbo Key

Chao-Jung has reached the spot in the park where the dog owners meet. Two French bulldogs in denim frocks are sitting in their carts. Fans blow cool air in their faces. A small Maltese wearing a smiley jersey sits on his owner’s lap. A Spitz wears a sparkly necklace. Two poodles, fresh from the groomer, frolic about, wearing yellow-green lace outfits with hair clips. Looking at the group of people and dogs is an audience: the elderly. They stand leaning on walkers or sit wrapped in blankets in wheelchairs. Behind them stand their Indonesian caregivers. Experts estimate that the number of pets in Taiwan now exceeds that of children. The country has one of the lowest birth rates in the world – in 1951, each woman had an average of seven children, but today the number is less than one.

Chao-Jung and her partner have been together for eleven years; they fell in love while still in school. Lately, her parents have been pushing, Chao-Jung says, „They want us to have a child. I always reply, „But I’m already a dog mom.“

For the interview, Chao-Jung wrote down why she and her partner don’t want children. It’s a long list, at the top of which is: money. Although Taiwan is a rich country, the boys‘ salaries are low. It is much harder for them to move up socially than it was for their parents. Real estate prices and the cost of living have risen sharply.

In a survey conducted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Health in 2019, 38.6 percent of women between 15 and 64 said they had no interest in getting married. And in Taiwan, marriage is still considered a basic requirement for having children. A society in which so many people do not want children is changing: it is living more in the now.

When the path to true independence is ruled out and the future could bring war, the current state of limbo is the best the people of Taiwan can hope for. Then they must wish for everything to remain as it is for as long as possible.

Salizan, Kaohsiung

Voguing dancer Salizan has left Liugui, now undulating through a club in Kaohsiung, a major southern city of 2.8 million people. He wears mirrored glasses, a belly-baring wrap top and bell-bottom pants. He makes his way through a sea of good-humored people, including some of almost otherworldly beauty: glitter, shimmer, endless eyelashes, fishnet, lots of skin, fake hair, ecstasy, laughter, man, woman, all in flux.

In a boxing ring in the center of the club, visitors compete in dance contests, swinging their hips, their arms, slamming backwards onto the floor with a crash. The battles are exuberant, sensual, ecstatic. Beer and shots are available for free at the bar, the event escalates into a carousel gone wild. And Salizan seems to be everywhere at once, to know everyone here. He grabs the microphone to cheer on the other dancers. Later he storms into the ring himself, jumps into a split, stands up, spreads his arms, dances full force. The audience shrieks.

In the end, everyone dances, singing along loudly to the hits, shaking their limbs in sync, a single dancing, cheering body. These are their songs. This is their time.

Taiwan was never part of the Socialist People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949, but the latter nevertheless lays claim to the territory, which consists of the main island of Taiwan and numerous smaller islands; it is somewhat larger than Baden-Württemberg. Taiwan is de facto an independent state, but only twelve countries and the Vatican officially recognize it.
The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a renegade province. Its claim goes back to the fact that the Chinese Qing dynasty ruled over the island for two centuries beginning in the late 17th century, but for the longest time only over part of it. A few decades earlier, the Dutch East India Company had established a base on Taiwan. It had brought settlers from mainland China to the island, which until then had been inhabited by indigenous peoples. After the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, China had to cede Taiwan to Japan. Until 1945, Taiwan was a Japanese colony.
After the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the government and troops of the „Republic of China“ withdrew to Taiwan, which officially still bears that name. After a long period of one-party rule under martial law, democratization began in the 1980s. Despite the conflict, China is the high-tech country’s most important trading partner.
Published on 28th June 2023 in ZEIT Magazin