The Bomb Show

Quemoy, Chinese Taiwan, July 12

The tour itinerary called for an “all day tour” of “Kinmen National Park and Scenic Spots of Kinmen.” Yesterday our guide explained that Kinmen is an island off Taiwan that we’ll  reach by airplane.  We will leave  the hotel at 9:00  and arrive on the island at 10:30.  You will need to bring your passport.

A veteran traveler on the bus showed me a map, pointing out that Kinmen is all the way across the Taiwan Strait. Hmm, I thought, this is unexpected. Might Kinmen = Quemoy? A little google searching showed that indeed it was.

The Quemoy Crisis

I’d forgotten that Taiwan (or the” Republic of China” on Taiwan established by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949) claims and controls some islands (Matsu, Wuciou and Kinmen) just a stone’s throw off the mainland coast. This is what the Quemoy Crisis of 1958 was all about.

I’d learned about that crisis in college, not in a class, but in reading the works of Mao Zedong. Mao declared that the People’s Republic “deliberately made a loud noise” in bombarding the Kuomintang-held island in 1958. This followed the U.S. Congress’s passage of the Formosa Resolution in 1955 (empowering the U.S. president to intervene if mainland forces attacked Taiwan);  the dispatch of a U.S. missile force to Taiwan in 1957; Seventh Fleet war  games in the Strait; and the unification of 17 U.S. military installations on the island in 1958.

The crisis occurred in the wake of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon beginning in July 1958, to prevent Lebanon from joining the newly-created United Arab Republic, supported by the USSR and China and by the Muslim majority in Lebanon. (This was an application of the “Eisenhower Doctrine” which stated that the U.S. would militarily intervene to protect regimes threatened by “international communism.”)

Mao was making a provocative statement to the U.S. Empire, then at the height of its glory. The Formosa Resolution authorized military action to “protect” Taiwan but said nothing about Matsu, Wuciou and Kinmen. If

the U.S. had the audacity to align itself militarily with Chiang Kai-shek, whose forces had fled the mainland following their defeat in 1949, and who had imposed his rule on Taiwan despite mass opposition from the island’s people; if the U.S. could recognize his capital in Taipei as the capital of all of China, dismissing the regime in Beijing swept to power by a massive peasant-based people’s war as somehow illegitimate; if the U.S. could provoke China by military maneuvers on its doorstep; if it could invade Lebanon, in an attempt to thwart the will of the Lebanese majority—why should China not tweak its imperialist nose by attacking its lackeys on Quemoy (Kinmen)?

This island on which I now sit in the sweaty heat, enjoying a Tsingtao beer, became a symbol of Cold War confrontation. Now it is visited by PRC tourists who take a ferry from the mainland plainly visible from the northern coast. The beer I drink is an import from the PRC. Times have changed.

 An Invitation I Couldn’t Refuse (to the Land of Chiang Kai-shek)

Why am I here? you ask. Why is an outspoken leftwing professor who has written sympathetically about Maoist movements around the world and generally defended the mixed legacy of historical communism, visiting Taiwan in the first place?

The fact is, I was invited. I was emailed an invitation for a week in Taipei with a small group of other “scholars and specialists” so that I could learn more about Taiwan and “exchange views.” Airfare, hotel expenses and meals would be provided by the Foreign Ministry. Surely there’s been some mistake, I thought. But no, it was real.

There followed some days of soul-searching, and consultation with my lovely wife. Could I in good conscience accept this opportunity? Chiang Kai-shek turned on his Communist allies in 1927, fearing their popularity and power. His forces killed (officially) 300 communists in Shanghai in on one day in April 1927. “The Hewer of Communist Heads” (as a western journalist called him) led a massive campaign that led to over 10,000 accused communists’ murders within three weeks, and by some estimates 300,000 during the following year.

Miraculously (if you believe in miracles) the Chinese Communist Party survived. Severed from its urban working-class base, it regrouped in the countryside, where Mao began building his People’s Liberation Army. The mainly peasant PLA harassed the KMT forces, established a base in Yenan following the famous Long March, and resisted the Japanese invaders whom Chiang saw as a lesser evil than the Chinese communists.

A dissident general within his own camp arrested Chiang in 1936 and forced him to sign an agreement with the Communists, establishing a United Front. The Xian Incident came just in time; Japan launched a full-scale invasion the following year. Chiang’s forces and Mao’s both resisted; the ranks of the PLA swelled but always lagged behind those of Chiang in quantity (but not quality).

After the defeat of Japan in 1945, the united front broke down and the civil war between the KMT and the Communists resumed. Meanwhile Taiwan was returned to China after fifty years of Japanese colonization. But the new (KMT) regime was unpopular; there were uprisings against it in February-March 1947. Many people in Taiwan indeed preferred the earlier Japanese rule.

Chiang’s forces lost the civil war and fled en masse to Taiwan, bearing the flag of the Republic of China (founded under Sun Yat-sen in 1912), rooting their legitimacy in the legacy of Sun  (as do the leaders of the PRC) and promoting the absurd thesis that Chiang’s regime represented all the Chinese people. This fiction was embraced by the U.S., which insured that Chiang’s government retained the China seat on the UN Security Council. For over two decades the China vote on that council was a ditto mark for the U.S. one.

Chiang’s dictatorship ended with his death in 1975, a year before Mao died. The one-party rule of the KMT continued to 2000. (My hosts insist that the election of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in 2000, and its defeat  by the GMD in 2008, constitute two successive “democratic transfers of power” and hence establish that Taiwan is now a democracy.)

I opted to accept the kind invitation from the land of Chiang. (And believe me, it is that; the man’s face with its cruel smile is everywhere. The Chiang Memorial—a mandatory item on the itinerary—is a grandiose temple of the bizarre, centering upon the huge seated image of the man. The idol is flanked by bayonet-wielding soldiers standing sternly immobile until new ones arrive, enacting a ritual seemingly modeled after the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.)

The group I’m with (referred to as the “delegation” by my hosts, although we did not constitute ourselves as such; few of us  knew one another before this, and we have not arrived with any collective purpose in mind) has met with top officials of the Foreign Affairs, National Defense and Economic Affairs ministries, a KMT thinktank,  the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (which advocates Taiwan independence), the speaker of the parliament (who hosted a memorable banquet), among others. Everyone has been extraordinarily gracious. I am worried about fitting all the gifts into my luggage.

I’m quite sure about why I’m here. CounterPunch columns! I’ve written about the territorial dispute between Japan and China involving Diaoyutai (Senkaku) sympathizing with the Chinese position (which is also the Taiwanese position) on the basis of my understanding of history. It is useful for them that an historian specializing on Japan, married to a Japanese woman,  with no particular history of supporting official Chinese views on anything, writes sympathetically about Chinese/Taiwanese territorial claims vis-a-vis Japan. And that I’ve written empathetically about the anti-Japanese protests that occur in China when Japanese officials visit Yasukuni Shrine, or approve history textbooks that prettify Japanese imperialism.

Kinmen (Quemoy) Today: “Bomb Show” Tourism

But let me describe this place. It’s a group of islands covering about 150 square kilometers, with a population of around 50,000. It’s located less

than two kilometers from the mainland city of Xiamen, an urban hub of several million people. There has been a town here since the seventeenth century, but it was largely depopulated and replaced by a military base of tens of thousands of KMT troops by the 1950s.

Insufferably humid (like Taipei) it currently boasts of several primary productive activities, which the visitor will be exposed to in the standard tour. Stop one was the Kinmen Kaoliang Liquor Brewery, founded by a KMT general in 1952. Kaoliang is a strong (56%) distilled sorghum liquor extremely popular on the island of Taiwan and here. The local brew is of very high quality and is being sold widely in the People’s Republic as well as Taiwan.

Then there is the local peanut candy, and the kitchen knives produced by master artisan “Maestro Wu” in his workshop as you watch. (For iron he uses the exploded bombshells from the era of incessant bombardment. The supply seems endless.)

I suspect tourism is the major “industry” however, feeding the others. The beaches are beautiful, and apparently people can sunbathe and swim, although I saw none of that today; they were completely deserted and the guide said this was so because the sea is “too deep.” Tourists come, not for the beaches, but for the history.

Or at least, for a particular take on history. Tishan Tunnel on the southern side of the main isle is a sort of chauvinistic park, replete with historic tanks, military statuary, and a wonderful underground bomb shelter passage perfect for relief on a hot sweaty day. Classical western music soothes the soul as one passes to the end of the tunnel, where it meets the sea. This is where the KMT troops repaired to avoid Mao’s bombs from 1958.

Lion Mountain Artillery Military Camp is the next stop, on the northeast side of the island. More tanks and soldier statues, another tunnel to wander through, although the music is martial this time. Lots of displays in the underground complex of exploded bombshells. The tour guide had mentioned a “bomb show,” and indeed we were treated to it.

At the end of the tunnel, where an artillery gun faces the mainland,  a group of tourists had already taken their seats on tiny chairs. From the rear a young uniformed woman (one must assume, a member of the Taiwan army) appeared, barking musically as a chorus resounded from deep in the cave, followed by a siren. A column of six mostly female soldiers appeared, stood at stern attention while reviewed by an NCO. One approached the cannon, igniting its imagined ordinance. There was a flash of light and a blast.

The dramatic performance was followed by opportunities for tourists to be photographed with the stern-looking active-duty Taiwan military actors. Would you like to take some pictures with them? asked our guide, although she had no takers. Bizarre.

Finally, Mashan Observation Station, where one once again enjoys relief from the humid heat in another tunnel, leading to a long narrow trench equipped with high-powered binoculars. I enjoyed looking over at the bustling city of Xiamen while someone behind me mentioned that a PRC businessman was planning to set up an amusement park on a nearby Chinese island. I thought to myself that it was only a matter of time before a Chinese capitalist buys Kinmen itself.

Taiwan and China

Since 2008 under the current Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou Taiwan has signed 19 economic agreements with China. (This by the way is the terminology one encounters at the highest level here. I’d have expected that Taiwan officials would usually refer to themselves as officers of the “Republic of China,” and to Beijing as “the mainland.” Instead I find that even leading KMT figures tend to refer to their dominion as merely “Taiwan,” and to the PRC as “China.” It is a concession to reality.)

There are now direct flights between Taiwan and China. 8000 students from Taiwan are studying at Chinese universities, 3000 PRC students studying in Taiwan. China has replaced the U.S. as Taiwan’s number one trading partner. I can watch CCTV in my Taipei hotel room. None of the officials I met are talking seriously about Taiwan reconquering the mainland, or even positing the prospect of war. (They seem more afraid that China will buy, rather than invade, Taiwan.)

Instead there is a resignation to the fact that, given “our situation” (that’s the delicate formulation I repeatedly heard), the Taiwan regime must simply pursue the status quo, expanding economic ties with China while resisting any discussion of political unity. The “situation” refers to the fact that

Taiwan has few diplomatic “allies” (the term used to refer to countries that simply recognize the Republic of China diplomatically); has become economically dependent on the PRC; and cannot declare itself independent of China without risking economic repercussions if not military action.

The ruling Kuomintang party is indeed committed ideologically to the “one China” concept and is unlikely to ever advocate separate Taiwanese statehood. The opposition Progressive Democratic Party on the other hand has pressed for Taiwanese independence. It has on its side the inconvenient fact that however the PRC and KMT both might aver that “Taiwan has always been part of China” Taiwan has rarely in China’s long history been under any sort of effective Chinese administration. It was only settled by large numbers of Chinese from Fujian in the eighteenth century, and the architecture of central government was scant before the colonization of the island by Japan  from 1895 to 1945.

Here on a sponsored study trip, I have no solution to the Taiwan problem. Both the PRC and Taiwan are capitalist countries. The moral high ground of the PRC slipped away in the late 1970s as what any bourgeois analyst now recognizes occurred: the Chinese leadership abandoned socialism and embraced capitalism. The Taiwanese ruling elite appreciates the fact that both Taiwan and China are “market economies.” What they want as the price of re-integration into China is China’s “democratization”—the abandonment of single-party rule.

But didn’t the KMT monopolize power on Taiwan from 1949 to 2000? And  hasn’t it held it again since 2008? And isn’t a two-party system, even if it should be established in Taiwan, no guarantee of “democracy” (rule by the people) in the way most people understand and desire it?

These days affluent PRC tourists visit the KMT tunnels of Quemoy and watch with amusement the bomb shows put on by Taiwan soldiers. Taiwan is putting on a brave face, facing the mytho-heroic past. China looms patiently, confidently. It was  announced last month by the China Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) that the mainland will “actively provide assistance” to Kinmen to help solve its water shortage problem.  “We will not recognize you,” China says, “but we will mitigate your thirst.”

Water not bombs. Tourists not threats. This is today’s Quemoy Crisis.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: