‘People don’t want to talk about war’: Taiwan civil defence battles invasion risk denial

from our special correspondent in Taiwan – Emerging civil defence groups in Taiwan have vowed to make the island’s population better prepared for a potential attack by Chinese troops. Two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine prompted an unprecedented grassroots mobilisation in favour of civil resilience, a large number of Taiwanese are still afraid that the act of preparing for war could in itself raise the risk of an attack. FRANCE 24 reports.

Advertising

It looks like an assault rifle but sounds rather like a toy. There is a world of difference between the clanking sound of the M4 carbine airsoft replica and the explosive boom of a real firearm. But that doesn’t prevent some clients at the Camp 66 airsoft shooting range in Taipei from dressing in tactical clothing to get a stronger feel of modern warfare. Due to severe legal restrictions on gun practice and ownership, airsoft clubs are the only way for Taiwanese civilians to get some technical skills that, they hope, could prove useful in the event of a Chinese invasion.

“I started airsoft shooting because I’ve heard since my childhood that training in Taiwan’s army isn’t good enough,” says Bill Huang, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student wearing a “Taipei city police” tactical vest. He began practicing airsoft shooting during the summer of 2022, a few months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a revival of interest in civil defence in Taiwan.

“I believe skills from airsoft training would be useful for civil defence because airsoft guns operate just like real guns. If one day the government gives me a gun or any other rifle, I will be able to use them and defend my country,” Huang said.

Bill Huang (R) and his friend Brian pose at the Camp 66 airsoft shooting range. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

He came to the Camp 66 shooting range with a friend who looks like he parachuted in from a war zone, with his military helmet complete with tactical communication headset and a replica of the M4 carbine that is standard issue in the US military.

When his “assault rifle” gets jammed, a former US Marine working as weapons instructor at Camp 66 is here to help.

“These are definitely not firearms. But the replicas are very faithful to the original models, and it allows people to get used to load, unload, and manipulate them,” says Richard Limon. “Most important, it teaches them to handle firearms carefully.”

Retired US Marine Richard Lemon checks an airsoft replica at the Camp 66 range.

Retired US Marine Richard Lemon checks an airsoft replica at the Camp 66 range. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Taiwan didn’t get a “wake-up call” moment like Ukraine had in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and sent troops to back separatists in Donbas. The country has nothing similar to the Territorial Defence Forces trained by Kyiv shortly before the 2022 invasion. 

Taiwan’s old civil defence scheme, which reportedly has hundreds of thousands of volunteers in existing crisis response teams, is facing “systemic failure” because of budget and training issues, according to analysts. 

The overhaul of civil defence was not an issue in the campaign for the January 13 presidential election, which has focused more on domestic social and economic issues rather than cross-Strait relations. Despite different rhetoric, all three candidates – as well as an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese – are in favour of broadly maintaining the status quo in the island’s thorny relations with China. 

Tony Lu poses with an AK-47 airsoft replica at Camp 66. He's known across Taiwan for having fought in Ukraine's international legion in 2022. He is now urging his fellow countrymen to get prepared in case of a Chinese invasion.

Tony Lu poses with an AK-47 airsoft replica at Camp 66. He’s known across Taiwan for having fought in Ukraine’s international legion in 2022. He is now urging his fellow countrymen to get prepared in case of a Chinese invasion. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The recent surge of interest in civil defence preparedness came from a bottom-up movement, not a government initiative.

“Most participants in civil defence activities I met were frustrated by the lack of reaction from the Taiwanese government after the recent Chinese incursions,” says Wen Liu, a scholar at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Ethnology who recently took part in some 50 civil defence workshops and interviewed dozens of participants for her research paper.

Getting prepared for a Chinese invasion

The legal framework preventing citizens from getting their hands on firearms is not the main issue, according to Liu. She points instead to the government’s reluctance to name its potential enemy across the Strait and frame the conflict as “Taiwanese against Chinese” because of historical reasons.

The island has lived under self-rule for 70 years since supporters of the Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang, fled there after losing to the Communist party in the civil war. Taiwan’s constitution still refers to itself as the “Republic of China”.

Liu notes that it’s only in June 2023 that Taiwanese authorities released an updated civil defence booklet with a section on how to tell the difference between Chinese and Taiwanese soldiers based on their uniforms, camouflage and insignia.

Close-up picture of Taiwanese firing airsoft guns at the Camp 66 range.

Close-up picture of Taiwanese firing airsoft guns at the Camp 66 range. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“A lot of people in Taiwan have become accustomed to Chinese intimidation and don’t even want to talk about it. Since there was no invasion in the last 70 years, they believe that nothing will happen if they carry on as usual,” says Liu. To them, building a strong civil defence aimed at countering a Chinese invasion could be seen as provoking escalation with Beijing.

“The most important thing with emerging civil defence groups is that they strengthen the people’s psychological awareness. It also shows international allies that Taiwanese are not split over their will to resist,” adds the researcher.

The locals’ willingness to take up arms against a Chinese invasion is especially scrutinised by Washington, whose military help would be crucial to repel a large-scale attack. 

Portrait of Taiwanese scholar Wen Liu, an assistant research professor at Academia Sinica.

Portrait of Taiwanese scholar Wen Liu, an assistant research professor at Academia Sinica. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

It remains anyone’s guess what the attitude of the wider Taiwanese population would be in the event of an invasion by China. Public surveys on that sensitive issue are considered unreliable. Researchers interviewed by FRANCE 24 said the 2022 craze for civil defence training was now going flat or even going down, but there is no solid data on the subject.

Civil defence attracts younger people

A spokesperson for the Kuma Academy, one of the main NGOs organising classes about first aid, cognitive warfare, executing evacuation orders, and the like, said the group had “reached out” to 500,000 people, but didn’t provide a monthly breakdown. The group aims to train 3 million people – more than 10 percent of Taiwan’s population.

Airsoft clubs and new activist groups like the Kuma Academy have attracted mostly young Taiwanese, according to T.H. Schee, a tech entrepreneur and expert in crisis response.

“Most are in their 20s or early 30s. They are the age group more likely to openly prepare to resist a Chinese invasion. This is very different from the existing  disaster reaction groups, where most volunteers are over 50 years old. The older generation doesn’t like to name enemies because they know that politics and governments can change – that one day even your own government could be your enemy,” says Schee.

TH Schee prepares to train in the 4SC CrossFit room he recently opened in Taipei. The poor physical conditions of many Taiwanese young people could hinder civil resilience, according to him.

TH Schee prepares to train in the 4SC CrossFit room he recently opened in Taipei. The poor physical conditions of many Taiwanese young people could hinder civil resilience, according to him. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Drawing on his own experience coordinating rescue efforts following the 1999 earthquake and the 2009 typhoon, he argues that both emerging groups and existing disaster reaction organisations should work together for the sake of civil resilience.

“You can’t protect your neighbourhood only by yourself (…) A key aspect of civil defence is to know what person in your local group can do what. Such knowledge and the maintenance of communication would be indispensable to avoid chaos and manage a proper resistance movement in case of an invasion,” he says.

Another challenge for Taiwan’s civil defence is the population’s general physical condition, which he sees as fairly poor.

Taiwanese people attend a CrossFit class in Taipei on October 4, 2023.

Taiwanese people attend a CrossFit class in Taipei on October 4, 2023. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“Practicing airsoft shooting or first-aid training can be effective for psychological preparedness, but I’m afraid some young people would not last a day or two if a war breaks out, because they are not fit enough. I know that not everyone in Taiwan needs to be a soldier, that would not be practical,” says Schee.

“But if we manage to have 5 or 6 percent of the population who are really in good shape, die-hard prepared people, that could change the course of the war.”

Source: Thanks france24