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Taiwan's island outpost in the front line



The underground tunnels below Chiunglin Village, in central Quemoy, are well prepared - at least for visitors. For the equivalent of 25p per ticket, one can descend the steps in the village hall and tour the 1,355 yards of passageways, which were built in the Sixties. "We never had the occasion to use it," said a villager. "But maybe we will in the future," he added ruefully.

The village is not, as yet, making any urgent arrangements to have the tunnels ready. Tsai Shui-Cheng, the 36-year-old village head, said; "The situation is stable, there is no special preparation. The old people have prepared themselves by buying extra food, but we have not organised anything for the village."

With China yesterday starting its live-fire exercises in an area just 40 miles south-west of Quemoy, an island belonging to Taiwan, one might be tempted to ask, why not? "Because we are not going to fight, and anyhow we are very strong and we will resist . . . We are safe because the army is here," said Mr Tsai. "We have already lived through times of great tension with the mainland, so people are used to it."

Quemoy has a population of 40,000 civilians and about 50,000 soldiers and nestles less than 2,000 yards from the mainland at its closest point. Until 1991 it remained under military government, but in the past five years had begun to appreciate a sense of normality, including a growing tourism industry. Now Quemoy finds itself once again potentially in the front line. The civilians are putting on a brave face: "We are not frightened," insisted Mr Tsai.

There is nervousness, but no signs of panic. By one exit from the tunnel network, a stone carving of the "hongseye" Chinese idol to peace, stands wearing a new pink cloak, and with incense and candles burning on its base. Tsun Chang-lun said: "People are coming and making a prayer and putting incense. Normally they do this once a year, but they come more often these days."

From yesterday, the state of alert on Quemoy was officially raised from Level 3 to between Levels 3 and 2. There are soldiers everywhere. That is true normally, but now they are busy digging trenches, wheeling out anti-aircraft guns, manning the pill-boxes, and preparing the tanks. Convoys of army vehicles and supplies roll down the mostly empty roads. Soldiers are wearing helmets and carrying small packs, something which locals said only started yesterday.

At the civilian airport, soldiers were arriving back from holiday. But yesterday morning there was also one large group departing for Taipei for their usual one week's leave.

Quemoy's governor, Chen Shui-tsai, said: "The situation is not that tense." But he added: "I estimate there is a 30 per cent probability of conflict with China." He defined this as either an attack or a blockade. Mr Chen said the island had adequate food and water supplies for up to six months, and had prepared electricity supplies and hospital beds.

Quemoy in recent history survived three big assaults from the mainland. At the Kuningtou battle in October 1949, it fought off thousands of mainland invaders. In 1954 and 1958 the island suffered massive bombardments from the mainland, which it returned in kind.

Since then, Quemoy has built, though not tested, not only tunnels, but also the underground Granite Hospital, drilled in 1973 into the side of a rocky outcrop, and protected by thick blue-painted metal doors. It is a working hospital, though the plan at the entrance includes such sections as a "Political Warfare Department" and a "Secret Officers Room".

Over the past few years, however, Quemoy's civilian residents have increasingly seen themselves caught between Taiwan main island and mainland China. "Before 1991, we could go to Taiwan, but they could not come here," said one young man. "Taiwanese people living in Quemoy are more frightened at the moment than Quemoy people."

But this leads to a sense of confusion now as to what is in Quemoy's best interests. At Shin Hwu fishing harbour, on the south coast, the local fishermen were defiant. "We will keep on going out. We will go out tomorrow," said Li Cheng-chen. "Even if they come with more than one million, we are not afraid of them. We are all Chinese. We are not going to fight, we want to live in peace."

Quemoy people feel stuck in the middle of a game in which they have no say. "Those mainlanders are crazy guys," said Tsai Hsu-ling, aged 50. "We will sort them out. We will kick their faces in if they come to attack. But what is the point of all this anyway, all for one election? Further, we do not care about the election. It is just for the ambition of one person. All that we want is to live peacefully, but really those mainland leaders are crazy guys."