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Sat, Jan 13, 2001 - Page 4 News List

Smugglers lament opening of China ties

SMALL THREE LINKS Now that Taiwan's policy is to encourage legal trade between Kinmen and Xiamen, the government has been clamping down on long-flourishing illicit traffic

By Mark Landler  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , KINMEN

Coast guards on Kinmen wait to inspect the belongings of oyster harvesters returning to shore days before the Jan. 1 opening of the "small three links." Goods from Chinese vessels waiting just offshore would often be smuggled in together with the oysters. Small-time illegal trade is now on the decline as legal trade is encouraged.

PHOTO: CHIANG YING-YING, TAIPEI TIMES

Each night, they wade noiselessly ashore and scuttle across the beach like fugitive crabs. They carry long poles weighed down by satchels of fish, meat, biscuits, even clothing. All of it is smuggled from China, less than 6.4km away in the inky darkness.

But after the opening of direct trade links with China, this week has been different. The police now prowl the beaches, shining flashlights across the surf. Smugglers caught trying to meet Chinese fishing trawlers have their goods confiscated at the water's edge. One unlucky local woman sent her cargo back to the boat, and sloshed ashore muttering epithets at the police.

Fu Kin-dun, a Kinmen farmer who has been supplementing his income by smuggling and reselling packets of ginger, biscuits and peanuts, complained: "They're really cracking down on us. We used to be able to do this in broad daylight."

Long before Taiwan legalized direct trade between Kinmen and China on Jan. 1, a flourishing black market bound together these lonely islands 224km west of Taiwan, and the coastal towns in nearby Fujian province.

Kinmen was bombed mercilessly by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) in 1958, prompting then-US President Eisenhower to send warships to help Taiwan supply its troops there.

After the hot war turned cold, Kinmen remained the first line of defense for Taiwan. In recent years, as tensions across the Taiwan Strait have ebbed, most of the soldiers have left.

To encourage the newly legal trade, Taiwan's government has decided to clamp down on the illicit traffic. For Fu and his fellow traders on Kinmen, Taiwan's crackdown is merely headache-inducing.

"When I was a boy, all my father ever talked about was direct ties with China," said Fu, 63, who has vivid memories of a childhood spent dodging artillery shells fired by the Chinese Communist army. "If there is a full opening of links," Fu continued, "the locals won't be able to make a living. No matter what I grow -- garlic, taro -- there is a cheaper crop over in China."

At the nearly empty village market, Hong Re-jin agreed that cozier ties between China and Taiwan meant economic trouble for Kinmen.

"This island cannot compete with the mainland," said Hong, who sells vegetables and biscuits, some smuggled from China. "You will see one-way trade. China will dump all its cheap goods on Kinmen."

Hong said her business had already dried up since Taiwan reduced its military forces on the islands. At the height of the Cold War, more than 120,000 troops were stationed here. Kinmen was studded with pillboxes, honeycombed with tunnels, laced with land mines and wrapped in barbed wire.

Now, barely 10,000 soldiers are left. The pillboxes and tunnels still exist, though many are deserted and others have been converted into tourist attractions.

"The battlefield legacy has a certain appeal to tourists," said Chen Shui-tsai (陳水在), the commissioner of Kinmen County.

But Chen has bigger plans for his county of 55,000. After the ban on direct links was lifted, he led the maiden ferry voyage to Xiamen, a city of 1.2 million whose lights can be seen from Kinmen.

"We can become a satellite city of Xiamen," said Chen, 55, a voluble man still basking in his role as an emissary for Taiwan. "Kinmen needs room to grow, and China can give us that room."

Chen talks excitedly of building a commercial harbor to complement the one in Xiamen -- after Kinmen clears the land mines that were planted by Chiang's army to thwart a Communist invasion. The government is soliciting bids from companies that specialize in clearing explosives.

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