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Kinmen County, Taiwan — Triangle Fort Cafe on Kinmen Island may well be Taiwan’s best place to guard against the threat of a Chinese invasion. It has direct views of the Chinese city of Xiamen six miles away, built on an old military bunker, decorated with camouflage mesh, and serving hot and cold beverages.

With Chinese warships now lingering off Taiwan’s coast and missiles falling into its waters, the split in the loyalty of the cafe’s two owners speaks volumes about how a generational shift in Taiwan has transformed Taiwan’s democracy’s relationship to China.

If China tries to take Taiwan by force, Jiang Zhongjie, 32, will fight, even if the chances of winning are slim. Ding Yixiu, 52, said he “will surrender”.

Taiwan’s culture was shaped by the Aboriginal era, centuries of Chinese immigration, Japanese colonial occupation and the harsh period of martial law, Taiwan is not monolithic. During its 30 years as a democracy, conflicting allegiances have dominated its politics, and debates over whether to accept or reject China’s claim to the island have broken down along age, identity and geography.

In recent years, the middle ground has shifted amid increasingly provocative China. Now, more and more Taiwanese are isolating themselves from China. For them, China poses an existential threat to a pluralistic and democratic way of life. They do not see Taiwan as part of a long-split family, as described by Mr. Ting and many older, China-friendly figures.

Even on Taiwan’s closest islands to China, which have historically preferred neighbors, Mr. Ting is a dying breed. Paradoxically, the older generation, with fresh memories of China’s attacks decades ago, are the friendliest to the country. As beneficiaries of China’s economic liberalization and educated to emphasize Chinese ties, they recall the years when China opened up to the world and got rich before Xi Jinping became supreme leader. For young Taiwanese, their perception of China is shaped by Xi Jinping, a land of paranoia bent on denying their ability to choose their own leaders.

Although Jiang and Ding had similar experiences — they both spent time in China, most of their lives in Kinmen — he cherished Taiwan’s openness and felt threatened by Beijing. “I value Taiwan’s freedom and democracy, and I don’t want to be unified by others,” he said.

Decades of democratic rule and China’s tireless efforts to isolate Taiwan and, most recently, dismantle Hong Kong’s democratic institutions have cemented that prospect, with many downplaying China’s military exercises in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit. Reaction. This is what many people expect from China.

Even at Café Triangle, itself built on a historical fragment of a not-too-distant direct military confrontation, there is indifference to new threats. Compared to the days when the rusted tanks and abandoned hardware on the sandy beach below were reminiscent of the days when the two sides exchanged gunfire, the drills were already taking place in distant skies and seas. China provocatively fired at least 11 missiles on the first day of the exercise, including one that flew over Taiwan, invisible to most.

On the coast of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, an archipelago close to mainland China, life is largely business as usual, albeit only 25 miles from a staging point for the exercise. Volunteer beach cleanups continued while Taiwanese troops loaded shells into transport ships. Many say it was worse before.

Older residents shrugged off the tensions due to decades of military stalemate. During the 1995 and 1996 U.S.-China standoffs, before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, they recalled how people fled the smaller island and rushed to the bank to cash out their life savings during China’s military campaign.

“People are running for their lives,” said Bao Yuling, 62.

Ms. Bao believes that, like last time, there will be no results. It was a rare consensus with her 35-year-old daughter Zhang Yijie.

She has little memory of past military exercises during the third Taiwan Strait crisis, as the confrontation at the time was already called. Instead, she said the recent influx of Chinese dredgers into the waters near the islands was a more visible sign of Chinese aggression.

Now, she views China’s authoritarianism critically. While her mother believes economic growth should come first and admires new construction on nearby Chinese islands, Ms Zhang said freedom and democracy are paramount.

“Our founding father, Sun Yat-sen, took so long to win the revolution and get us out of the dictatorship, why should we come back?” she said.

This trend is more pronounced further from China, where the majority of the 23 million people live on the island of Taiwan itself. Jessica Fang, 26, a consultant in the central city of Changhua, said the threat of constant attack was increasingly embedded in her generation’s worldview as democratic values ​​emerged.

Amid the current tense situation, many watching outside Taiwan appeared to expect Taiwanese to “hysterically” stock up on food and make evacuation plans, Ms Fang said, adding she was offended by the perception. “Taiwanese show composure in the face of rising tensions not because of ignorance or naivety, but because it’s accepted – even internalized – as part of Taiwanese,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that recent military gestures from China have made her take the prospect of an attack more seriously. If the Taiwan Strait did become a battlefield, Ms Fang said she would send her parents to safety and then stay to fight, though she admits that taking up arms may not be the most effective way for her to contribute.

On the island of Taiwan near China, a handful of people did get a glimpse of the drill. In Kinmen, Qiu Yixuan, 39, the owner of an independent bookstore, said she felt the shock on Thursday. “At first I thought it was thunder, then I realized it wasn’t,” she said.

Even so, she was unmoved. “It brought back memories of my childhood dodging bombs,” she said, adding that the current threat was no big deal compared to the past.

On the Matsu Island chain to the north, 16-year-old high school student Cai Haomin said he heard an explosion and saw a brief light. He showed an image he took on his phone of a parallel wake rising off the coast of China.

During her year in China, Tsai Ing-wen has come to appreciate aspects of the country, such as its economic growth and technological prowess. However, he said he plans to join the Taiwanese military when he is old enough. He prefers freedom of speech in Taiwan.

This is important for his main form of political engagement, making memes online mocking the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping.

In response to growing tensions with China, he created a meme with images from the British sitcom, “Mr. Bean,” which showed the titular character checking his watch and falling asleep. Above them, he added his own message: “So is the party going to attack?” using a derogatory nickname to refer to the Chinese Communist Party.

He said his views on China were shared by his friends, who did not take the prospect of an invasion seriously. As usual, China’s anger is for show, he said.

“Beautiful pictures of these two missiles. If they have so much money, why not take more pictures,” he said.

Amy Zhang Qian Kinmen County reports, John Liu from the Matsu Islands and Paul Mozur Taipei reported.

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