Xiamen, the Chinese city trying to attract Taiwan

The coastal hub is being showcased by Beijing, in an attempt to attract Taiwanese residents and companies. The goal is to increase cooperation with the democratically self-governed island

Xiamen Taiwan
Anti-tank fortifications along one of Taiwan's Kinmen beaches, opposite the Chinese city of Xiamen, photographed on April 9, 2023.Chris McGrath (Getty Images)

Time passes peacefully along the seafront of Xiamen, the closest Chinese city to the Taiwanese archipelago of Kinmen. It’s February, but a bright sun invites you to soak your feet in the sea. A couple of girls pose for a picture; children play in the sand.

For a visitor, the picture is paradoxical. Not far away, the fog blurs several military ships, which slowly cross the waters. On the other side, you can see the first islets belonging to Taiwan, the democratically self-governed island that China considers to be an inalienable part of its territory.

A few days earlier, on February 14, two Chinese fishermen drowned in those waters while being chased by the Taiwanese Coast Guard, which accused them of being in the area illegally. While Beijing has increased patrols after the incident, so far, there’s been no escalation. Tension coexists here, alongside China’s attempt to attract residents and investments from the other side of the Taiwan Strait to this coastal city, which almost touches Taiwan.

Shao Gao is around 50-years-old. A native of Xiamen, he has the morning free to walk along the beach. “That’s Taiwan,” he states, pointing with his finger at the accumulation of land that can be seen in the distance. It’s part of Kinmen, the group of small Taiwanese islands separated by just three miles of water from the Asian giant. That’s where the Nationalists stopped the advance of Mao’s communist troops in 1949.

That year, the losers of the Chinese Civil War established the government-in-exile of the Republic of China in Taipei, under the leadership of General Chiang Kai-shek. Meanwhile, on the mainland, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. 1949 is the origin of one of the largest geopolitical conflicts of the contemporary era, in which the two great powers of the 21st century continue to clash: the United States — Taiwan’s main ally — and China.

“The Kuomintang settled in Taiwan when it lost the war, but we’re all Chinese,” Shao asserts, looking towards Kinmen. Although he’s never visited the other side of the Taiwan Strait, he maintains that “reunification” will take place “at some point.”

“It’s the best for everyone,” he emphasizes.

China considers Taiwan to be a rebellious province that it intends to reunify peacefully. However, Beijing has never renounced the use of force to achieve this “historic mission of the Communist Party.” And that rhetoric — which both Chinese leaders and the state media repeat ad nauseam — affects the citizenry.

In February, Wang Huning — China’s top official for Taiwan policy (after President Xi Jinping) — asserted that it’s crucial to “resolutely combat separatism” and “firmly support patriotic forces for reunification.” His remarks — issued at the annual Taiwan Conference — were the first on the subject to have been made by a member of the Communist Party’s top decision-making body since the Taiwanese presidential elections this past January. Several political analysts — such as the American Bill Bishop — point out that Wang’s speech was more assertive than during last year’s address, when he limited himself to stating that Beijing should “oppose separatist activities” and “firmly defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Although China had described the elections as a decision between “war and peace,” the Taiwanese chose to continue with the most China-skeptic path: the one proposed by the Democratic Progressive Party, which has been in government since 2016. The president-elect — Lai Ching-te — presented himself as a guarantor to maintaining the current status quo, in line with the policies of outgoing president Tsai Ing-wen. Her eight years in power have been marked by the absence of communication with the People’s Republic, Taipei’s rapprochement with Washington, as well as growing tensions in the Strait.

“It seems that the new Taiwanese president wants enmity with China, but that makes no sense. Taiwanese have families and businesses here,” Shao shrugs. In September 2023 — ahead of the elections — Beijing announced a plan to turn the province of Fujian (which Xiamen is a part of) into a “test zone for integrated development across the Taiwan Strait.” The project seeks for the region to serve as a showcase to attract Taiwanese residents and companies, with the goal of increasing cooperation across industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, or precision machinery.

Xiamen is key to that program. The coastal city — with four million inhabitants — brims with energy and vitality. Its multicultural and modern charm invites you to stay. According to figures from China’s National Development and Reform Commission, more than 10,000 Taiwanese companies — representing a total investment of more than $30 billion — had already established themselves in Fujian province before the initiative was launched. Some 9,000 are based in the coastal city, accounting for a quarter of the municipality’s total industrial output value, according to data from the Xiamen Office for Taiwan Affairs.

A 20-minute ferry ride from Xiamen is Gulangyu Island — an enclave of just under a square mile that, at the end of the 19th century, became one of the five gateways for foreign trade. Thus, the fusion between East and West is palpable in every corner: bougainvilleas and vines cover the facades of European-style buildings, which stand alongside Taoist and Buddhist temples.

Hui Min, 55, runs a restaurant where she serves regional specialties. It’s empty inside, but several curious people are gathered at the stall that she’s set up at the entrance. She tries to attract passers-by to sell them her main product (for a not-so-modest price): a peeled, flower-shaped mango, stuck on a stick. “Buy this beautiful mango flower! Perfect for photos!” she shouts, while her sister cuts the fruit, giving it that particular shape. Her tactic works.

Hui — a native of Gulangyu — tells EL PAÍS that many of her customers are Taiwanese. “We’re the same family, we’re very close!” she exclaims. In her opinion, her neighbors “love” traveling to “the mainland,” because “China is much more technologically advanced and the economy is doing better.”

“In Taiwan, they don’t use WeChat to pay. It causes a delay,” she boasts. She claims that she’s gone to Taiwan to meet friends and family. “We have very strong commercial and social ties,” Hui emphasizes. But when asked if the results of the recent elections could ruin those ties, she remains silent and averts her gaze. She returns to hunting for new clients.

On one of Gulangyu’s busiest streets, Lin, 32, and her boyfriend Yang, 35, run a craft shop. “This bracelet is made with blue coral stone, a mineral found on the coasts of Fujian and Taiwan,” Lin details. “It’s very easy for Taiwanese to visit the mainland, but for us, traveling to the other shore is complicated,” she laments. Chinese citizens need approval from the government to travel to Taiwan. And the permit can only be requested at police stations in specific cities if you’re in possession of that city’s hukou (meaning that you’re registered in the census system). The document is only valid for one entry, so you must request it and pay the fees each time you want to visit the island.

“Our heart is the same. But now, it seems that our leaders don’t get along very well,” Lin concedes. Yang chimes in: “The thing is, Taiwanese people are very proud,” he opines. “But the real problem is the United States. With its interference, it has caused all the recent crises at the international level,” he affirms.

Washington transferred diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979. However, the American government has maintained “unofficial” ties with Taipei and has defended its “strategic ambiguity.” It sells weapons for the island’s self-defense and doesn’t specify whether or not — in the event of an attack by China — it would be Taiwan’s greatest military ally.

During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in San Francisco last November, President Xi Jinping reminded President Joe Biden that the “Taiwan issue” is the “most important and sensitive” issue in the relationship between the two main world economic powers.

Yang defends his country’s position, but believes that it’s “very unlikely” that the tension will lead to an armed conflict. “In the end, the will of the people always prevails. Although it will take time, perhaps decades,” he murmurs, letting us read between the lines. “We Chinese want peace,” he adds.

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