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Postscript : Taiwan Clings to Its 'Crab Claws' Against China : Martial law has been lifted, but Matsu and the former Quemoy Island remain symbols of the Nationalists' resolve.

February 09, 1993|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHINMEN ISLAND, Taiwan — Huang Yen, an elderly peasant woman, clearly recalls the terror of a 1958 Communist artillery barrage against this Nationalist stronghold just off the coast of mainland China.

"When the shells exploded, we hid wherever there was a hole," said Huang, 72. "For more than 40 days, we didn't go out for farming. We couldn't. I was frightened. We didn't have enough to eat or drink. We survived on a little water and some sweet potatoes."

From Aug. 23 to Oct. 6, 1958, in one of the great crises of the Cold War, Communist forces lobbed 475,000 artillery rounds onto Chinmen--better-known then in the West as Quemoy. The shells killed 587 Nationalist soldiers and more than 800 civilians, according to displays at a museum here devoted to the battle.

The bombardment was so heavy, Huang said, that when she ventured outside during lulls "you couldn't even find ants on the ground."

The 50-square-mile island and nearby islets held out, even though Chinmen (pronounced Jin-mun) lies just 1 1/2 miles from Communist-held territory. During the next 20 years, the Communists fired nearly 1 million shells against the Chinmen island group, according to official Taiwan statistics. The Nationalists responded in kind but on a smaller scale.

Today the big guns have been silent for more than a dozen years. Military administration ended Nov. 7 on both Chinmen and Matsu, a smaller Nationalist-held island group 150 miles to the northeast that was also shelled in 1958. Both groups of rustic islands, with a total civilian population of 50,000, are becoming popular destinations for tourists from Taiwan. But despite eased tensions between the Communist government in Beijing and the Nationalist one in Taipei, the islands retain a prominent role in China's unfinished civil war.

"Chinmen is the front line. It serves as an advance warning post for Taiwan," declared a top general on Chinmen, who said he wished not to be named so as to avoid being listed in Communist files. "Chinmen and Matsu are like the claws of a crab, protecting Taiwan."

Nationalist control of the islands also has political importance in a three-way struggle among the Communists, the Nationalists and the main Taiwanese opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors permanent independence for Taiwan.

The view that Taiwan is ultimately part of China--a proposition ironically supported by both Beijing and Taipei--is reinforced by Taiwan's control of Chinmen and Matsu. If the Taiwanese opposition ever comes to power and succeeds in declaring permanent independence for Taiwan, it would give up these offshore islands, which all sides consider part of mainland Fujian province.

The lifting of martial law in Chinmen and Matsu, followed by county magistrate elections in December, has been celebrated as a return to peaceful almost-normality. Travel between Taiwan and the islands, which used to be strictly controlled, is now completely free.

"Businessmen are enthused about the potential tourism dollars," the government-run Free China Journal reported in an article about the changes. "Matsu, along with Chinmen, has been slated for development into a tourist site due to the unique blend of military facilities, historic monuments, traditional southern Chinese architecture and clean beachfronts."

Taiwan authorities, however, continue to stress that the military threat from the mainland has not ended. The Free China Journal quoted Lt. Gen. Lo Chi-yuan of the Chinmen Political Affairs Commission as stating that "the presence of Chinese Communist military forces" in nearby parts of Fujian province "intensified" last year.

Lo said that Chinese forces had conducted two large-scale military exercises in Fujian and that "mainland fishing boats also constantly pass over the boundary . . . with suspicious intents." Lo assured the islands' residents that authorities "will be on constant alert and be prepared for war in the event that the Chinese Communists resort to military action."

The mixture of new openness and latent fear leads to curious anomalies. Camouflaged antiaircraft guns stand at some Chinmen street intersections, but they do double duty as stands for traffic officers. A wide, tree-lined street dubbed "Central Avenue" far exceeds traffic needs. "In case of warfare, if they bomb the airport, we could cut the trees and use this road (as a landing strip)," a military officer said.

The restaurants and shops of Chinmen's towns have depended primarily on off-duty soldiers for their clientele but should get a boost as tourism grows. Other economic activity on the island includes farming, raising oysters and producing fiery sorghum liquor--a favorite souvenir.

The island's hospital, dug more than 100 yards deep into a granite hillside, routinely has about 200 beds set up. "In event of war, we can expand it to more than 1,000," said nurse Hsu Hsiao-ping, an army lieutenant.

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