Is Kinmen Island a Taiwanese backwater or the gateway to China?
I stepped upon Taiwan’s Kinmen Island with a nagging question: is this place a Taiwanese backwater or is it Taiwan’s gateway to mainland China? Though 200km from the body of Taiwan it is serviced by super cheap flights and provides easy access to China’s Fujian province — so it could have been either.
Being the nearest part of Taiwan to mainland China, Kinmen was the focal point of military hostilities from the 1950s up to the 1970s. Likewise, Kinmen was the focal point of the beginning stages of the China-Taiwan reconciliation process, and was the bridge through which the reestablishment of trade and travel relations was tested.
Travel and trade links between Taiwan and China was first opened through Kinmen. In 2004, residents of Kinmen were the first in all of Taiwan to be permitted to travel to mainland China, and, in turn, residents of Fujian’s province were the first mainland Chinese to be permitted to visit a part of Taiwan. The reestablishment of trade relations between Taiwan and China was also approved in that year, and Taiwanese businessmen were permitted to commercially engage the mainland via links at Kinmen and Matsu (another small Taiwanese Island off the coast of China). In 2008, Taiwan passed measures to permit all of its citizens to access China through Kinmen, rather than needing to transfer through Hong Kong first. Eventually, as Taiwan and China continued opening up to each other, restrictions on travel and business relations lessened, and the main island of Taiwan can be accessed directly from the Chinese mainland and vice-versa. The role Kinmen as the gateway to China thus diminished, and this small island was again relegated to backwater status.
Though Kinmen was the initial staging ground for the reestablishment of Chinese/ Taiwanese business and travel endeavors, you wouldn’t know it from looking around the island today: there just isn’t much going on here. I write these words not to belittle Kinmen, but to bolster it: what Kinmen has going for it is precisely that which it lacks. There is very little industry on the island, and the air is clean and fresh. There is little large scale development, so there are wide open spaces, forests, farms, and many virtually untouched beaches. The place is beautiful precisely because it is left alone. It was this even-keel, natural, and relaxed vibe that Kinmen gives off that is, in my opinion, its shining attribute. This place seems to sit in a bubble at the edge of the earth rather than being just a couple miles across a narrow strait from a Chinese boom town. At this stage of globalization and world-wide development schemes, a place’s biggest commodity can perhaps be standing on the sidelines of this game.
“Do you often go to Xiamen [China]?” I asked many people on Kinmen. Most say that they do travel over to the mainland regularly as though it’s no big deal. The reason why they go there is often the same: shopping. They may go because things are cheaper there, but the fact of the matter is that Xiamen is the nearest truly urban area to Kinmen, and seems to be to be the only place around that someone could go shopping.
Jincheng, the biggest place on Kinmen, is called a city, but it is actually a mid-size town without much to offer in terms of retail outlets. From what I can tell, it has a spattering of hotels, a supermarket, a few vegetable markets, a few chain restaurants, some noodle joints, a handful of upscale restaurants, traditional medicine shops, bombshell cutlery shops, a seemingly disproportionate number of coffee and tea houses, a truly obscene amount of 7-Elevens, and more places for religious worship per square meter than I’ve observed anywhere else in the world. There really isn’t too much there in the way of shopping or recreation, and if someone wants the amenities of a city they need to either hop the ferry and go to Xiamen or fly to Taipei.
There is a simple way to detect the degree to which a place is thriving economically which goes beyond tallying the amount of stores, big buildings, and flashing lights. Looking at the people can tell you the story. If you see what appears to be a disproportionate amount of young adults between the ages of 20 and 35, you can bet that you’re in a place that’s rocking. But if you observe what seems to be a disproportionate amount of kids and old people you can assume that you’re in a place with minimal economic stimuli — a backwater. I walked around Jincheng for days, and my peer group (late twenties/ early thirties) seemed to have been dashed from the city [not including soldiers, which is a different thing all together]. It was clear that people of my age group were seeking education, employment, lives elsewhere — and I did not have the impression that many were returning to invest their newfound skills, education, and money back in their home island.
I befriended a couple of girls who were roughly the same age as me at a Taiwanese chain spaghetti house. They told me they owned the franchise, and they spent their days cooking interesting variations of this Western dish. I asked about what’s going on in Jincheng, and immediately one of them proclaimed in English: “There isn’t crap here!”
The other repeated her words: “There isn’t crap here.”
I tried another angle and explained that I was a traveling journalist and needed something to write about Kinmen, and I solicited suggestions. There was only one response: “You should write about how bad it is here.”
Though Kinmen means “golden gate,” it is currently in no way Taiwan’s gateway to mainland China. As I looked around Jincheng it was clear than Kinmen was being passed right up as Taiwan and mainland China become further economically intertwined. To put it simply, beyond a spattering of tourism I could not detect the slightest indication of the buzz of cross-strait commerce on this little island. For all intents and purposes, looking at the amount of economic stimulus Taiwan is pumping into their possession in China’s backyard, this place may as well be 200km on the other side of Taipei.
But this is seems set to change very soon. If Kinmen isn’t being staged as Taiwan’s gate to China, it may just become China’s headwaters in Taiwan. Chinese businessmen seem frothing at the bit to get a piece of undeveloped Kinman. The People’s Daily reports:
Speaking of his investment plan in Taiwan’s Kinmen island, Chinese mainland businessman Wu Youhua could not stop talking.
“With a total investment of 700 million U.S. dollars, I will first build a high-end hotel to receive mainland tourists, and then run a cattle farm using free vinasse from a local liquor factory, and then run an electric vehicle leasing company using marsh gas made by the cattle waste to charge the vehicles,” he said.
“I believe an economic circle between Xiamen and Kinmen will be eventually built with large profitable opportunities seen,” he said.
More recent reports of Wu Youhua’s Kinmen dream say that he already has 1 billion RMB from China Development Bank lined up to dive right in with massive development projects. “In the next 10 years, Kinmen will become a paradise on the Taiwan Strait’s west coast,” he said.
I can’t help but to cringe when a Chinese developer uses the word “paradise.”
Taiwan opened up the floodgates to Chinese investment in 2010, and the writing is on the wall: though Kinmen is officially a part of Taiwan it stands a decent chance of becoming an economic enclave of the mainland. As I walked out in the countryside of Kinmen visiting some quiet old villages, I saw a banner advertising a coming Chinese development project. It was for a massive resort.
I can see a day when investors begin jumping over the fence and descending upon the spoils of virgin Kinmen in droves. Empty land, beautiful beaches, nice weather, a political system that is ready to allow gambling all within proximity to a population of people with disposable income is a gold mine in this era. I could almost see the hotels, the casinos, the shopping malls as I walked through Kinmen’s barren hills and along its empty beaches. The CEO of Caesars Entertainment has reputedly already visited and sized Kinmen up for investment. Allowing business potential to go untapped doesn’t mesh well with the mentality of The New China. The main lure here is visitors from the Chinese mainland who are predicted to ride over on the ferry from Xiamen in masses as soon as the recreational infrastructure has been created for them. It is another Chinese if you build it they will come scenario, albeit one with the power to wipe out the tranquil Minnan village life that this island currently knows for good.
Kinmen, as I’ve experienced it, is an endangered relic from another time.