Fearing war with China, civilians in Taiwan prepare for disaster

In a polarised society where the establishment is criticised for doing too little, people take civil defence into their own hands.

Participants in a disaster drill organised by the civil defence group, Taichung Self-Training Group
Participants in a disaster drill organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group in Taichung, Taiwan [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
Participants in a disaster drill organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group in Taichung, Taiwan [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

Taipei, Taiwan - A missile has struck Taiwan's capital and wreaked devastation on an otherwise peaceful park.

Moments earlier, pedestrians were strolling along paved streets lined with brick and stone buildings with slanted, tiled roofs that dot this hilly location.

Now, torn limbs are scattered across blood-soaked cobblestones, and everywhere, the dying and the wounded are writhing on the ground, screaming in pain, calling out for help.

Soon, rattled first responders move to their aid, trying to locate the most seriously afflicted, staunching the bleeding from wounds and carrying people to safety.

It resembles a warzone, but it isn’t one.

The blood and the limbs are fake, the injured are unharmed actors and the first responders are trainees.

The scene is a simulation organised in late January by a civil defence group, Kuma Academy.

The drill lasted eight hours and also included training people how to respond to air defence alarms, use the surrounding terrain as cover and avoid detection by enemy forces.

“In today’s large-scale exercise, we are simulating real-life scenarios to allow our students to get hands-on experience,” Chen Ying, an instructor at Kuma Academy, explains.

Participants take part in a disaster drill organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group similar to the exercises operated by Kuma Academy in Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

One hundred and twenty participants, all of whom had completed basic first aid and disaster response training, took part.

One of the participants says he had initially signed up to gain an understanding of what the situation would be like in the event of a disaster or a war scenario. “If something like that happens, it means that you should be prepared,” he says.

“You will be better able to cope with it emotionally and mentally.”

Kuma Academy has grown rapidly in recent years and now offers a wide variety of courses and exercises spanning topics from cyberattacks and disinformation to cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and injury assessment.

The organisation is part of a wider grassroots movement of Taiwan civil defence groups that have sprouted up across the island in recent years and have seen a flurry of civilians sign up for training.

Lessons are primarily about nonviolent forms of civil preparedness.

“We leave combat to the Taiwanese military,” activist and co-founder of Kuma Academy Ho Cheng-Hui tells Al Jazeera during one of the organisation’s training sessions.

The nonviolent training takes myriad forms. Some organisations, like Kuma Academy, arrange realistic, large-scale training exercises with more than 100 participants at a time. Smaller local groups have made civil defence a matter of gathering people to undertake physical training together at a local community centre.

Classes are being offered in subjects such as how to tie knots, administer first aid, maintain a stash of emergency supplies, pack a grab-and-go bag and make a tourniquet. Others focus on civil defence in the virtual realm, teaching participants how to counter online manipulation campaigns and distinguish fact-based information online from mis- and disinformation.

You Chiao-chun, founder of the Taichung Self-Defence Group, demonstrates basic knot tying during a training session in the city of Taichung [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

According to Assistant Professor Fang-Yu Chen from the Department of Political Science at Soochow University in Taipei, all the civil defence preparations are happening because of concerns about China.

“Taiwanese are concerned about China taking aggressive steps against Taiwan,” he says.

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing has regarded self-ruled Taiwan (officially the Republic of China) to be an inseparable part of China itself.

In 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he would not rule out using force to bring the island under the CCP’s control.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year showed 66 percent of Taiwan's people consider Beijing’s power a major threat to Taiwan. Almost 83 percent believe the threat from China has increased in recent years, according to a 2023 poll by Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

Their fears appear to be well-founded. On Thursday, China began two days of joint military drills involving the army, navy, air force and rocket force in the waters and airspace around Taiwan. The Chinese military framed the joint exercises as deterrence against Taiwanese "separatists" and "external forces".

According to US intelligence, Xi has instructed the military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027, according to news reports.

Kuma Academy co-founder Ho says, like others around him, he has been deeply concerned about future Chinese actions against Taiwan.

“I found that many Taiwanese civilians shared my concern but that they were unaware of what to do or where to go with that concern,” Ho tells Al Jazeera at one of Kuma Academy’s training courses in Taipei. That is why he co-founded Kuma Academy in 2021.

But the growth of civil defence groups like Kuma Academy has not been embraced by everyone in Taiwan. Some raise concerns that the groups are endangering the island by further antagonising China. Others see the new organisations as a symptom of a failing state-controlled civil defence structure and accuse the government of doing too little to bolster and expand the existing system.

Ho sees the state of civil defence in Taiwan as far from perfect but said at least more people are learning how to save lives from groups like his.

“We want to teach civilians how they can protect themselves and each other, so that if war comes, everyone is prepared.”

Preparing for the worst

Participants in a disaster drill organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group learn how to identify injuries and carry people to safety [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
Participants in a disaster drill organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group learn how to identify injuries and carry people to safety [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

For 41-year-old accountant Alex Yeh, who lives in New Taipei City, preparing for a Chinese attack began with events in Hong Kong less than five years ago.

In 2020, the Hong Kong authorities successfully quelled massive pro-democracy protests, and Beijing imposed a national security law on the city, placing Chinese law above Hong Kong law and allowing cases in Hong Kong to be tried in China instead.

The year before, Xi had emphasised that the concept of “one country, two systems”, which had characterised Beijing’s governance of Hong Kong, was suitable for Taiwan as well.

“It all made me afraid for Taiwan’s future and the danger that Taiwanese civilians like me could face,” Yeh says while unpacking pieces of fitness equipment with a dozen other people in a park on the outskirts of Taipei one early evening.

So she started to reach out to others in her network and found that she was not the only one worried.

A few of them met up to chat at first, but eventually they decided they needed to do more than just talk.

“We all wanted to do something to improve our own preparedness and safety,” she explains as a group of children run past on their way to a playground in the centre of the park. “For the sake of keeping others safe as well,” she adds, nodding towards the children.

“So we began taking different kinds of first aid and civil defence classes and exercising regularly together.”

Today, many of Yeh’s friends join her in the park once a week to do strength and first aid training.

A strength training session in the park with trainer TH Schee in Xindian, south of Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

While events in Hong Kong frightened Yeh, she felt more reassured by developments in Taiwan around the same time. During its 2020 election, President Tsai Ing-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ran on a platform of not allowing Taiwan to end up like Hong Kong.

Despite having slumped in the polls less than two years prior, Tsai won re-election in a landslide.

“I think that election result was a clear signal that Taiwan does not want to be like Hong Kong,” Yeh says.

But then in August 2022, the Chinese military launched some of the biggest navy drills ever held in the Taiwan Strait, combined with the firing of ballistic missiles in the waters around Taiwan. The exercises followed a visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Her visit sparked fury in Beijing.

During the Chinese military exercises, Yeh began stocking up on supplies. Today, she has enough food and water to last her family three months. “The Chinese government showed that it will never stop seeing Taiwan as its territory, and they are now stronger than ever to act on it,” Yeh says.

According to her, a military drill can quickly become a war - something Moscow demonstrated in early 2022 when its purported military exercises near Ukraine ultimately became an attack.

“Russia’s actions in Ukraine have shown everyone that invasions are not ghosts of the past. They can still happen today,” Yeh says before taking part in first aid exercises with the rest of the group in the park.

‘I have to get my family out of Taiwan’

Bryan Hopkins
'A solid civil defence infrastructure will be vital to ensure that society can function in civilian areas,' Bryan Hopkins says in Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
'A solid civil defence infrastructure will be vital to ensure that society can function in civilian areas,' Bryan Hopkins says in Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated the vital importance of civil defence for a country under attack, according to 48-year-old American independent filmmaker Bryan Hopkins, who is originally from Ohio and last year spent eight months in Ukraine.

“I don’t think Ukraine would survive without the collective efforts of the Ukrainian people,” Hopkins tells Al Jazeera in southern Taipei.

“I saw locals running aid distribution hubs, grandmothers weaving camouflage nets and civilians assisting with evacuations,” he explains. “Without efforts like these, many more Ukrainians would be dead.”

The experience persuaded him that Taiwan's civilians had to get ready to contribute in case of a Chinese attack. “A solid civil defence infrastructure will be vital to ensure that society can function in civilian areas,” he says.

Hopkins turned what he saw in Ukraine into a list of lessons that include “preparing for the unexpected even if the unexpected is war”, not relying too much on technology because services are at risk of being knocked out early in a war and prioritising mental health.

Before he left for Ukraine, Hopkins had been living a comfortable life in Taiwan for more than a decade with his Taiwanese wife and their two children. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, one of his close friends in Taipei, a Ukrainian named Yuriy, was stuck in Ukraine and unable to return home.

“I soon became consumed by the idea of going to Ukraine,” Hopkins says.

He had served as a parachute medic in the US army's 82nd Airborne Division from 1997 to 2000, so he initially, he considered drawing on this experience to go as a volunteer combatant. Instead, he packed his camera gear and went to document Ukrainian life on the front lines.

When he returned to Taiwan eight months later, it was not just with lessons for Taiwan, however, but also with a personal realisation: “I have to get my family out of Taiwan.”

The same unity around national and civil defence that had struck him in Ukraine also led him to see how vulnerable Taiwan is.

“I love Taiwan. I consider it my second home,” he says. “But I’m afraid that Taiwanese lack the consensus and the morale that are necessary to build a broad-based defence that can deter a Chinese attack and, if necessary, repel a Chinese invasion.”

Polarised and politicised

Participants learn to tie knots during a civil defence training session organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
Participants learn to tie knots during a civil defence training session organised by the Taichung Self-Defence Group [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

“We won’t win a war with China anyway,” one conscript said during an interview with the Reuters news agency in late 2018 when he learned that he had been assigned to four months of service in the navy.

Others have similarly expressed low confidence in Taiwan’s army and in the current civil defence initiatives taking place. One is 58-year-old former elementary schoolteacher Judy Chang.

“I have two sons that both went through military training, and they both told me it was a complete waste of time and had nothing to do with preparing for war,” Chang tells Al Jazeera from her two-storey home on the outskirts of the city of Miaoli.

She considers civil defence preparation to be pointless at best and at worst a danger to Taiwan. “I’m afraid that such activities will antagonise China and make them even more determined to take Taiwan by force,” she explains.

“A war with China will be the end of Taiwan and lead to the death of so many Taiwanese people - no matter how many of them know CPR.”

She believes Taiwan should focus on lowering the risk of war by engaging in more dialogue with Beijing and cutting down Taiwan's military. “That is why I vote for the Chinese Nationalist Party at every election,” she says.

The party is also known as the Kuomintang, or KMT, and Chang says she is a particularly enthusiastic supporter of its former leader Ma Ying-jeou, who served as Taiwan’s president from 2008 to 2016.

Ma still comments on politics, and in the days leading up to the national elections in January, he said: “No matter how much you defend yourself, you can never fight a war with the mainland [China]. You can never win. They [China] are too large, too much stronger than us.”

During Ma’s presidency, Taiwan’s spending on defence decreased from 3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) into 2 percent while the conscription period was lowered from one year to four months of military training, largely turning Taiwan's military into a volunteer force.

TH Schee, 47, right, at a physical training session in Xindian, south of Taipei, where he organises and trains people for civil defence [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

For its part, the DPP has emphasised that Taiwan must build its own “strengths” and nurture its ties with Western powers to counter the threat from China.

Many of Ma’s policies were rolled back during Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency (2016-2024). Her DPP government, which was given an unprecedented third presidential term after the January elections this year, raised conscription from four months to one year and increased military spending from 2 percent of GDP to 2.5 percent.

William Lai Ching-te, Taiwan’s current president, who assumed office on May 20, has committed to continuing these policies. Beijing has accused Lai of being "a dangerous separatist" and refused to communicate with the DPP government, although it does engage with representatives from the KMT.

As a result, the DPP has accused the KMT of kowtowing to Beijing while the KMT has accused the DPP of stoking a war in the Taiwan Strait.

This politicisation around China has also spilled into the realm of civil defence groups.

KMT figures have questioned whether organisations like Kuma Academy can make any sort of difference in a war.

When one of Kuma Academy’s primary donors, chip billionaire Robert Tsao, announced that some of his donations to Taiwan civil defence groups would go to train 300,000 expert marksmen from among “common folks”, questions were asked regarding the nature and intent of Kuma Academy’s training.

In need of a wake-up call

Participants take part in a disaster drill based on an earthquake scenario in Taichung. Many people dislike exercises associated with war [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
Participants take part in a disaster drill based on an earthquake scenario in Taichung. Many people dislike exercises associated with war [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

“Help me! Help me! I'm dying!” a participant shouts quite convincingly during a disaster drill held in a public park in Taichung until a first responder in training rushes to his aid.

Behind them, two other first responders are working together to carry away a participant pretending to be unconscious.

Similar to the January training led by Kuma Academy, this exercise was organised in early April by the Taichung Self-Training Group. But in this case, the group presented the scenario as an earthquake disaster rather than as a Chinese attack.

The Taichung Self-Defence Group, which was set up last year, wants to avoid the controversy and the politicisation that has plagued other civil defence organisations, so its instructors no longer frame their training in terms of China.

“Our community outreach focuses on general disasters like earthquakes since we have found that many people are less inclined to participate in our courses if war is the premise,” the group’s 36-year-old founder, You Chiao-Chun, who is also a nurse and avid mountaineer, tells Al Jazeera after wrapping up the exercise in Taichung city.

“Many Taiwanese have not accepted that there is a possibility that a war might happen,” she says.

Luckily, skills acquired through training for one kind of disaster can often be used in case of a different kind of disaster, according to You, which indirectly can help prepare the public for war.

“So if a community is struck by an attack, its resilience has already been increased through other kinds of training and preparation,” she explains.

“That way people are better equipped to support the front lines and less likely to panic in a way that could force the government to make hasty decisions.”

“The motivation and setting for civil defence training doesn’t really matter. What matters is that people do it,” 47-year-old TH Schee says.

He is an organiser and an instructor in civil defence and civil resilience who has worked with communities all over Taiwan. Like You, he refrains from talking directly about war.

“I keep the focus on the practical stuff - how to do CPR, how to apply a tourniquet, how to carry people safely,” he explains at a community centre in southern Taipei, where he is preparing to carry out physical training with a neighbourhood group.

TH Schee, right, at a physical training session in Xindian, south of Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

Schee has been involved with civil defence in Taiwan since before the threat of a Chinese attack became a growing concern. “For me, it started with the Jiji earthquake,” he says.

On September 21, 1999, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake, more powerful than anything Taiwan had experienced in its modern history, rocked the mountainous centre of the island. More than 2,400 people were killed and 11,300 were injured.

Schee’s hometown was only a few kilometres from the epicentre. He was in the navy at the time but got off duty and quickly began to organise relief efforts from Taipei to the afflicted areas.

“Most of the roads were destroyed in the area, so I and a few others rode dirt bikes through the mountains to assist with logistics and supply deliveries,” he explains.

After that, he began dedicating more and more of his time to disaster response and crisis resilience. But it was much more difficult back then to organise in new groups. Martial law had only been lifted 12 years prior, and civil society organisations were just starting to emerge from the shadows of nearly four decades of one-party rule.

“It is very different now. Now you see new groups popping up all the time,” he says.

But in his experience, the quality of training and preparedness varies a great deal from group to group, community to community across the island. “And most of these new groups are not organising or coordinating with each other,” he says.

Legally, the Taiwanese government is supposed to be in charge of organising and coordinating civil defence, but civil servants in the vanguard have expressed concerns about being undertrained and underprepared for the task. At the same time, legislators and military experts have criticised the government for not addressing civil defence with greater urgency.

Meanwhile, only a fraction of public funds designated for civil defence end up being used for training volunteers in civil defence.

To accommodate calls for greater civil defence preparedness, the military released a handbook on civil defence in 2022 meant to act as a guide in a war scenario. But different versions of the book have been criticised for containing dead internet links and telephone numbers to cancelled hotlines as well as inaccurate depictions of military equipment.

“I don’t think we would see all these new civil defence groups being set up if the existing civil defence system was up to the task,” Schee says.

He believes people must draw inspiration from the changes that followed the Jiji earthquake. The initial response was strongly criticised for being slow and uncoordinated, but in subsequent years, reforms were implemented to improve emergency responses, and building regulations were revised.

When a magnitude 7.2 quake, the strongest to hit since 1999, struck Taiwan in early April this year, the casualties were far fewer this time - 18 people died and about 1,000 were injured.

According to Schee, Taiwan needs a wake-up call for civil defence similar to what it got for earthquake preparedness in 1999. “And we need it soon because if a major military conflict were to break out now, there would be total chaos.”

Prepared to stand and fight

Jack Yao
Jack Yao has set up supply depots with food, water and equipment to last him and a group of family and close friends for several months if a war begins [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
Jack Yao has set up supply depots with food, water and equipment to last him and a group of family and close friends for several months if a war begins [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

According to 30-year-old Jack Yao, Taiwan's people should not wait for a collective effort or for the government to fix the civil defence system.

“You need to do more now yourself to prepare,” Yao says.

With his family and some close friends, he has set up supply depots of food, water and equipment to last them several months in case a military crisis erupts.

“If you wait to get these things until after a war happens, it will be too late,” he says, leaning forward across a large white desk in a brightly lit room that he uses for storing some of his equipment. “You don’t want to be unprepared when war starts because war is s***.”

Yao learned that the day he entered Ukraine to volunteer as a medic.

It was April 2022, and he had just crossed the border from Poland when a Russian missile struck near him, killing many of the people Yao had teamed up with since landing in Warsaw. “That was my ‘welcome to Ukraine’,” he tells Al Jazeera.

Before the missile strike, he had spent many hours being interrogated by Polish authorities and then by Ukrainian authorities. “I first landed in Poland, and they all wanted to know why I had come all the way from Taiwan to go to Ukraine,” he says. “They thought I was crazy.”

But with his own training as a medic in Taiwan's army, he had started planning his journey the moment he saw pictures of Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine. “Ukraine’s situation with Russia is very similar to Taiwan’s situation with China, so I wanted to go help,” he says.

He subsequently served in the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine doing supply runs and organising donations from Taiwan besides working as a medic.

Jack Yao
Jack Yao with his equipment in Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

When he returned to Taiwan after three months, he joined the military reserves, believing the armed forces, like him, were drawing lessons from Ukraine.

But he became disillusioned by what he considered to be a lack of proper training in the  reserve force and in the established civil defence forces.

“When I raised my concerns with my superiors about this, they told me to shut up because there was not going to be a war with China anyway, so it didn’t matter,” he says.

“There are people in the established system that are too old-fashioned and are not taking the threat seriously.”

Yao hopes that will change with Lai as president. If it does not, Yao believes it will harm Taiwan's chances of securing international support - a vital element in any conflict with China.

"No other country will send its sons or husbands to fight for a small island that doesn't plan to fight for itself. I wouldn't want to do that either," he says.

The need for international assistance in the event of war also played a part in his own service in Ukraine. “I went to Ukraine because they needed help, so hopefully when Taiwan needs help one day, people from outside will help us too.”

Tobie Openshaw
Tobie Openshaw, 61, in his car with his grab-and-go bag, prepared for a disaster [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

One person who intends to stay and help in the event of a war is 61-year-old South African documentary filmmaker and photographer Tobie Openshaw, who has been living in Taiwan for 25 years and considers the island his home.

“I will hold out in Taiwan for as long as I can and support and help as much as I can because this place has been better to me than my home country has,” Openshaw tells Al Jazeera from his car in the mountains overlooking Taipei.

He has decades of emergency preparedness experience going back to his two-year national service in South Africa in the 1980s, and he regularly gives talks about the topic around Taiwan.

He already has an emergency plan in place in case an attack is launched against Taiwan. To start with, he always has a go-bag packed and ready with basic necessities, such as batteries, food, water, a radio and a first aid kit.

“I can quickly grab that and immediately head to a place of safety,” Openshaw says, placing a hand on the backpack next to him.

He lives in Taipei, and if missiles start to rain down on the city, he will head to one of the many parking garages or basements that the government has designated as bomb shelters. Once any initial bombardment or air raid is over, he intends to head for a cabin in the mountains outside Taipei. It is owned by a friend he has planned to team up with and is unlikely to be the target of attacks.

Openshaw’s contribution to the war effort from there will depend on how a potential war scenario evolves. According to him, there will be many ways to contribute other than as an active combatant.

“You can help by doing first aid, transportation, logistics or even just telling the story, getting the story out there,” he explains.

And regardless of how that story develops, Openshaw is certain that Taiwan will not just roll over. “I am now seeing even young Taiwanese girls learning to be EMTs [emergency medical technicians], carrying people on stretchers and putting on tourniquets,” he says.

He is convinced that Taiwan's people will stand and fight.

“And it will be street by street and village by village,” he says.

“So any enemy coming here will have to consider that they won’t just be up against defence forces. They will be up against the Taiwanese people.”

Tobie Openshaw
'Any enemy coming here will have to consider that they won’t just be up against defence forces. They will be up against the Taiwanese people.' Tobie Openshaw talks on a radio from a spot in the mountains overlooking Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
'Any enemy coming here will have to consider that they won’t just be up against defence forces. They will be up against the Taiwanese people.' Tobie Openshaw talks on a radio from a spot in the mountains overlooking Taipei [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera