For many Chinese, there are ‘more important things’ than Taiwan unification

Beijing has not ruled out using force to annex Taiwan, but there is little appetite for war among Chinese people.

People in Xiamen said they supported unification but did not want conflict. The sign reads 'One country, two systems, unify China' and is visible from Taiwan's Kinmen islands [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

“It is difficult to imagine that this used to be a warzone,” 23-year-old *Shao Hongtian told Al Jazeera as he wandered along a beach near the city of Xiamen on China’s southeast coast.

Halting by the water’s edge where gentle waves lapped against the sand, Shao gestured beyond the shallows towards the sea and the Kinmen archipelago – now peaceful, but in the 1940s and 1950s, a battleground.

The communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and the nationalists of the Kuomintang (KMT) fled Beijing for the island of Taiwan. It was on Kinmen, the main island of the archipelago of the same name, less than 10km (6.2 miles) from the coast of China, that the nationalists repulsed repeated communist invasion attempts, but not before the fighting had wreaked havoc on both Xiamen and Kinmen.


Kinmen and its outlying islets – some of which lie even closer to the Chinese coast – have been a part of Taiwan’s territory ever since.

Chinese citizens like Shao were once able to get tourist visas to visit the islands, but that ended with the pandemic.

“Kinmen, China and Taiwan are all part of the same nation, so it should be possible to visit, and I hope I can visit one day,” Shao said over a video connection – his eyes fixed on Kinmen.


Like Shao, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claim that Taiwan and its territory are part of China.

Defences line the beaches of Kinmen where nationailsts beat back the communists in the wake of the 1949 civil war [File: Ann Wang/Reuters]
Xi said in his New Year’s address that China’s unification with democratic Taiwan was an “historical inevitability“, and China has not ruled out the use of force to achieve unification. Last year Xi called on China’s armed forces to strengthen their combat readiness.

In recent years the Chinese military has increased its pressure on Taiwan with almost daily airborne and maritime incursions close to Taiwan’s air and sea space. At times of particular tension, such as during the visit of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, such manoeuvres have been accompanied by sabre-rattling rhetoric and large-scale military drills.

Capsized boats, recriminations

Recently, tensions have been rising near Kinmen as well.

In February, two Chinese fishermen were killed when their speedboat capsized as they attempted to flee the Taiwanese coastguard when they were discovered fishing “within prohibited waters” about one nautical mile (1.8km) from the Kinmen archipelago.

Since then, the Chinese coastguard has stepped up its activities around Kinmen.


Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for the Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said the February incident was “vicious” and stressed the waters were “traditional” fishing grounds for fishermen in China and Taiwan. There were no off-limits waters around Kinmen, she added.

A second capsize was reported on Thursday, and on this occasion China asked for help from the Taiwan coastguard.

Standing on the beach looking out towards Kinmen, Shao says hostilities are not the way to bring China and Taiwan together.


“I want unification to happen peacefully,” he said.

If that is not possible, he would prefer things to remain as they are.

Soldiers pay tribute to the fallen during a 2023 ceremony commemorating the 65th anniversary of China’s attack on Kinmen island [File: Chiang Ying-ying/Reuters]
He knows that many of his friends feel the same way. According to Shao, if they go to Kinmen and Taiwan, it should be as visitors, not as fighters.


“The Taiwanese haven’t done anything bad to us, so why should we go there to fight them?” he said, convinced that any war between China and Taiwan would result in significant casualties on both sides. “Unification with Taiwan is not worth a war.”

No appetite for war

A study published by the University of California San Diego’s 21st Century China Center last year suggests that Shao and his friends are not alone in opposing a war over Taiwan.

The study explored Chinese public support for different policy steps regarding unification with Taiwan and found that launching a full-scale war to achieve unification was viewed as unacceptable by a third of the Chinese respondents.


Only one percent rejected all other options but war, challenging the Chinese government’s assertion that the Chinese people were willing to “go to any length and pay any price” to achieve unification.

Mia Wei, a 26-year-old marketing specialist from Shanghai is not surprised by such results.

“Ordinary Chinese people are not pushing the government to get unification,” she told Al Jazeera.


“It is the government that pushes people to believe that there must be unification.”

At the same time, support for a unification war turned out to be close to the same level found in similar studies from earlier years, indicating that despite the growing tension in the Taiwan Strait and renewed talk about taking control of Taiwan, there has not been a corresponding increase in support for more forceful measures.

Wei believes that Chinese like herself are more concerned with developments inside their country.


“First there was COVID, then the economy got bad and then the housing market got even worse,” she said. “I think Chinese people have their minds on more important things than unification with Taiwan.”

According to Associate Professor Yao-Yuan Yeh who teaches Chinese Studies at the University of St Thomas in the United States, there is currently little reason for Chinese people to be more supportive of conflict with Taiwan.

US President Joe Biden has on several occasions said the US will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. At the same time, the US has been strengthening its military ties with countries such as Japan and the Philippines – Taiwan’s immediate neighbours to the north and the south.


“There is no guarantee of a quick victory in a war over Taiwan,” Yeh told Al Jazeera.

“Also, many people in China have business partners, friends and family in Taiwan, and therefore don’t want to see any harm come to the island and its people.”

The study also showed that young Chinese were more averse towards forceful policy measures than earlier generations.


“Young people are usually among the first to be sent to the battlefield so naturally they are more opposed to war,” Yeh said.

Shao from Xiamen thinks that any hope of victory in a war over Taiwan and its partners will require the mobilisation of a lot of young people like him.

“And I think many young people in China [will] refuse to die in an attack on Taiwan.”


Not an issue for debate

Regardless of what Chinese people might think, unifying Taiwan with the mainland will remain a cornerstone of the CCP’s narrative, according to Eric Chan who is a senior fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC.

“Unification is not a topic that is up for any sort of debate with the general public,” he told Al Jazeera.

China has become increasingly assertive in its claim over Taiwan and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its aims [File: Andy Wong/AP Photo]
Although the Chinese leadership often claims that China is a democratic country where the party is guided by the will of the Chinese people, there are no regular national elections or free media while online discourse is restricted and regularly censored. Speaking out against the CCP can also result in criminal convictions.


Since Xi became president in 2012, crackdowns on civil liberties have intensified, and Xi has centralised power around himself to a degree unprecedented since the rule of Mao Zedong – the man who led the communists to victory against the nationalists and became communist China’s first leader.

During Mao’s rule, reforms and purges of Chinese society led to the deaths of millions of Chinese people, while upwards of 400,000 Chinese soldiers died as a result of his decision to enter the 1950-1953 Korean War on North Korea’s side.

But according to Chan, the days when a Chinese leader could expend tens of thousands of lives in such a manner are over.

Recent government actions that exacted a heavy toll on citizens led to public pushback, and Xi did not appear immune.

During the COVID pandemic, Xi ardently defended the country’s zero-COVID policy even though its mass testing and strict lockdowns had dire socioeconomic consequences. The government eventually abandoned the policy as the economy sank, and people took to the streets across China’s major cities demanding an end to the lockdowns, even calling for Xi to step down.

As for war, the circumstances are also different. Unlike, for example, the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, a battle for Taiwan would be existential for the communist party and Xi, according to Chan.

“The party (CCP) would not have been threatened by a loss or high casualties in those wars,” he said.

Today, Xi would need to assume that those types of losses would be unacceptable to the Chinese people, he added.

Public outrage over a long unification war that might even end in a Chinese defeat could, in Chan’s view, endanger the party’s rule.

Mindful of the mood of the Chinese people, Chan sees the CCP instead continuing to engage in low-cost grey zone operations against Taiwan while developing a Chinese military that would be able to score a swift victory.

For Shao, however, any attempt to settle the issue through conflict would be a disaster.

“I don’t think it will end well for anyone – not for those that have to fight it and not for the government that starts it,” he said.

*Shao’s name has been changed to respect his wish for anonymity given the sensitivity of the topic.

Source: Al Jazeera