Sun Kuo-hsi vividly remembers the chaos that unfolded in the final years of the Chinese Civil War. It was 1949, and the government forces he fought for had collapsed against Mao Zedong’s Communists, forcing him to flee by boat to Taiwan in a perilous eight-day crossing.
“There was no dock. Everyone was splashing around in the water,” Sun, 110, recalled from his government-run veterans care home in the northern Taiwan city of Taoyuan.
Decades have passed since then, but that history of conflict threatens to weigh heavily on Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 13.
Still, Sun — part of the last generation in Taiwan to have fought against China and experience war — said he has observed a certain apathy among young voters.
“Talking about it with young people now, they’ve not been through that time. They don’t care [and] say it’s in the past. Nobody listens,” he explained.
Although the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taiwan more than seven decades ago and remains there to this day, there has never been a peace treaty to end the war with the People’s Republic of China. Neither government recognises the other.
During the past four years, China has ramped up military pressure against Taiwan, an island it claims as Chinese territory. That includes two rounds of major military exercises, stoking fears of a war that could drag in the United States.
Those tensions have dominated candidates’ campaigns in the run-up to Taiwan’s elections.
The main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), whose government fled China in 1949, has cast the vote as a choice between war and peace — a line Beijing has echoed.
The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), meanwhile, has championed Taiwan’s separate identity from China and says only Taiwan’s people can decide their future. It also rejects the Kuomintang’s framing as scaremongering, saying nobody wants war.
Some veterans of Taiwan’s last battles with China — who served on the Taiwan-controlled island of Kinmen in 1958 — say they remember the horrors of conflict all too clearly.
Yin Te-chun, 93, fought for China in the Korean War, a conflict that lasted from 1950 to 1953, but he was captured by United Nations forces.
To show his fervent desire to be sent to Taiwan when the war ended, he, like many others, tattooed himself with anti-Chinese Communist phrases such as “Storm the bandit strongholds” and “Kill Zhu,” the Chinese army chief.
Yin also fought against China when it attacked Kinmen, just offshore from the Chinese city of Xiamen.
“I don’t know whether there’ll be fighting again,” he said. “It’s up to the DPP. If they keep going like this, maybe there really will be.”
China dislikes the DPP, calling them separatists, and has rebuffed repeated offers of talks. The party’s presidential candidate, Vice President Lai Ching-te, is leading in the polls.