On a recent trip to Taiwan, I visited the island of Kinmen, one of Taiwan’s outlying islands located off the coast of China’s Fujian Province. Kinmen, more commonly known as Quemoy to a Western audience for its role in the Second Taiwan Crisis in 1958 as well as the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. Mao Zedong even tried—and failed—to invade the island in 1949. The purpose of the trip was to reconnect with old friends and revisit some of the sites of the island: civilian and military tunnels, some of which housed naval vessels; traditional villages; and beaches. The history of the island, particularly how the people lived during the martial law period in Taiwan when the island was militarized and when the PRC and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government would shell each other, is an important case study in how a population copes and adapts.
But—for better or worse—the more interesting story that came as a result of the visit was not learning how a shop turns old shell casings into cooking knives, nor was it finding broken tanks on a beach. It was learning, based on a text from my cell phone service provider, that I had entered China at one point during the trip.
Now, jetlag can make a person do questionable things, but I can assure you, dear reader, that I did not stumble into China. My feet remained firmly on Taiwanese territory.
The incident occurred when I, and some friends, went to the Beishan Broadcast Wall, a “hive-like reinforced concrete wall of 48 speakers” that faces the Chinese city of Xiamen, otherwise known as Amoy. During the height of the Cold War, the speakers broadcasted propaganda for the nearby Chinese people.
Beishan Broadcast Wall
While walking around the giant structure, I took out my phone to take photos (with my back facing China) and saw that I had received a text from Verizon saying that I had entered China and was able to use its TravelPass service to call, text, and use data. I promptly turned around to see Xiamen on the horizon—just to clarify that I wasn’t a part of the plot of an episode of Black Mirror. No, I was still in Taiwan, at one of its most recognizable Cold War sites.
In the screencap below, you will see the texts that I received upon landing in Taiwan on May 15 and then the text when I “entered China” on May 19. My friends, some of whom were visiting from Shanghai, could also use their Chinese cell service at this spot. A screenshot of the text one of them received, which welcomes them to Xiamen, is below as well. Despite not being in China, our phones decided that we were there and operated accordingly.
Text from Verizon welcoming me to China
Text from Chinese carrier welcoming my friend to Xiamen
When discussing the issue with Verizon, a customer representative apologized for the error and submitted a report to fix the location pinning. But the problem is broader than just one phone company since my friends visiting from China were also able to use their Chinese service as well. The greater cell network—Chinese and American—has deemed this sliver of Kinmen island as a part of China.
While this incident may seem innocuous, it is essentially a microcosm of the history of cross-Strait relations. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic (It is not.) and that the Taiwanese government is operating as a “rogue province.” (It is not.) Taiwan is a democratic country that holds regular elections; same-sex marriage was recently legalized there. It has its own military, immigration policies, and legislature—everything that a “normal” democratic country has except for membership in the United Nations. Recently, particularly since 2016 when current President Tsai Ing-wen was elected, China has increased its economic, diplomatic, and military pressure on Taiwan by conducting aerial encirclement missions, sailing naval vessels near or in Taiwanese territory, and poaching diplomatic allies. And now apparently phone service incursion.
It also points to a growing problem that companies and governments are facing in regards to China. Since Donald Trump took office, the CCP has expanded its “anaconda strategy” to squeeze Taiwan into submission by strong-arming Western companies, particularly airlines but also clothing companies and hotels, into categorizing Taiwan as a part of China. The Trump administration even accused the CCP of “Orwellian nonsense.”
Almost all of the targeted companies backed down in order to retain its access to Chinese markets. A “market trap” that complements the “debt trap” diplomacy that it conducts along the Belt and Road. Once a company gets into the Chinese economy and gets to reap the rewards of those customers, it is more likely to acquiesce to CCP demands out of fear of getting kicked out.
Now, Verizon may fix its error, but there is no chance that Chinese telecom companies will. And what happens if the Chinese network gets stronger and envelops all of Kinmen? The people of Kinmen will not be able to use their service because the Chinese service would have “kicked it out.” Could this be a small-scale test for some greater action? Does the CCP have greater plans for the island that it failed to conquer in 1949?