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TAIPEI, Taiwan—“Vanessa” thinks the Chinese invasion of Taiwan has already begun. She sees it every day in the tide of disinformation on social media, messages designed to cause panic in the population and undermine faith in her country’s young democracy. “All the fake news—we must understand this as part of war conditions,” she said.

As for the physical invasion, the 30-year-old IT professional believes it is coming soon and expects it to define the rest of her life. “The tension has been there ever since I was born, but recently with China’s internal crisis, they increased the pressure,” she said. She expects the blow to land within five to 10 years.

That’s why Vanessa has given up a day of her weekend and paid about $30 to join 40 others in a classroom in an unremarkable Taipei office block to learn how to prepare. There, they learn about the different weapons available to both sides and likely invasion scenarios: attacks on infrastructure, a tide of fake news, and potentially kidnapping of political leaders. There is a heavy emphasis on the need for good information—and the dangers of dis- and misinformation. There’s also work on first aid, with an emphasis on treating catastrophic injuries. The lectures include “Contours of Modern Warfare,” “Cognitive Warfare and Information Manipulation,” and a session on emergency first aid. The students are advised to wear goggles and gloves in case of an invasion to guard against chemical and biological weapons and are taught how to triage patients and judge whether or not an area is safe. A final session, kept under wraps and barred from the media, is on “Seeking Shelter and Battlefield Preservation.” 


Shaun Tai (right) fires an airsoft pistol during firearms training at Camp 66, a firing range and training facility run by two former Marines in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 6.

Shaun Tai (right) fires an airsoft pistol during firearms training at Camp 66, a firing range and training facility run by two former Marines in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 6.

Shaun Tai (right), a laptop salesman, fires an airsoft pistol during firearms training at Camp 66, a firing range and training facility in Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 6.Dave Tacon PHOTOS FOR FOREIGN POLICY

TAIPEI, Taiwan—“Vanessa” thinks the Chinese invasion of Taiwan has already begun. She sees it every day in the tide of disinformation on social media, messages designed to cause panic in the population and undermine faith in her country’s young democracy. “All the fake news—we must understand this as part of war conditions,” she said.

As for the physical invasion, the 30-year-old IT professional believes it is coming soon and expects it to define the rest of her life. “The tension has been there ever since I was born, but recently with China’s internal crisis, they increased the pressure,” she said. She expects the blow to land within five to 10 years.

That’s why Vanessa has given up a day of her weekend and paid about $30 to join 40 others in a classroom in an unremarkable Taipei office block to learn how to prepare. There, they learn about the different weapons available to both sides and likely invasion scenarios: attacks on infrastructure, a tide of fake news, and potentially kidnapping of political leaders. There is a heavy emphasis on the need for good information—and the dangers of dis- and misinformation. There’s also work on first aid, with an emphasis on treating catastrophic injuries. The lectures include “Contours of Modern Warfare,” “Cognitive Warfare and Information Manipulation,” and a session on emergency first aid. The students are advised to wear goggles and gloves in case of an invasion to guard against chemical and biological weapons and are taught how to triage patients and judge whether or not an area is safe. A final session, kept under wraps and barred from the media, is on “Seeking Shelter and Battlefield Preservation.” 


A first aid class at Kuma Academy, which provides training to civilians on a topics such as media literacy (to combat misinformation) as well as first aid Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 3.

A first aid class at Kuma Academy, which provides training to civilians on a topics such as media literacy (to combat misinformation) as well as first aid Taipei, Taiwan, on Dec. 3.

A first-aid class at Kuma Academy, which provides training to civilians on a topics such as media literacy as well as first aid, in Taipei on Dec. 3.

The course is run by Kuma Academy, one of a rapidly growing number of civil defense organizations through which ordinary Taiwanese are taking preparations for a potential war into their own hands. Taiwanese businessman Robert Tsao, the founder of the United Microelectronics Corp., has donated about $20 million to Kuma, saying he wanted to see it train at least 3 million Taiwanese so that every household in the country would have someone who had been through its programs. 

Vanessa was lucky to get in. Kuma Academy has a waiting list of thousands for its “basic camps.” It runs 15 one-day courses a month, soon to increase to 30. They sell out as soon as they are announced. Almost a thousand people have been trained at Kuma Academy since basic courses were launched in June. The United States has long been pressuring Taiwan to do more to prepare its own defense after years of underspending. Compulsory national service for men used to be two years and was shortened to just four months in 2017. Classes such as those at Kuma are a way to cram for the exam that may be coming.

“Robert,” a middle school teacher who, like Vanessa, did not want to give his full name for fear of what it might mean post-invasion, describes the main message as being mental preparedness, including against the “war on the internet.” Other lessons, said Kuma’s co-founder and CEO, Marco Ho, draw on the experience of the civilian population in Ukraine, including “how to take cover and how to evacuate and how to prepare stores of water and food.”

Kuma Academy takes its name from the Japanese (who governed the island for half a century) word for “bear”—a reference to the Taiwanese black bear. In the folklore of the Indigenous Rukai people of Taiwan, the black bear is known as the defender of the mountains. Ho is a scholar of inter-strait relations. His co-founder, Puma Shen, is an assistant professor in criminology at National Taipei University, specializing in state crime and information warfare.

“In warfare, only about 10 percent of people are actually using weapons. Our effort is directed to the other 90 percent, who must know how to protect themselves and their families and support the military effort,” Ho said. Their youngest trainee since they began the courses was 13 years old; the oldest, a 70-year-old retired doctor. Most have been between 30 and 50 years old, with roughly equal numbers of men and women. 

Ho regards inoculating the population against dis- and misinformation as the front line. Taiwan has long faced a barrage of fake news from China. Political meddling and disinformation have escalated since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen, a Taiwanese nationalist, in 2016. When U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited in August, digital signs at convenience stores were hacked to display messages criticizing the trip. Earlier, misinformation circulated suggesting the government was lying about the impact of COVID-19 on Taiwan. 

A new Ministry of Digital Affairs, established in August, has created “meme engineering” teams in each government department to respond to disinformation quickly and wittily. The minister for digital affairs, Audrey Tang, has said Chinese fake news aims to incite fear and undermine faith in democracy, thus building popular support for so-called reunification with China. So far, it hasn’t worked. Opinion polls show that most Taiwanese want to maintain the status quo, in which Taiwan behaves as a sovereign state but does not formally declare independence. A poll taken just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine by the Taiwanese government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research showed that 73 percent of those polled said they would be willing to defend the country in the event of a Chinese invasion.


Civilians try out unloaded bazookas at a Military Academy recruitment drive at the MOA airsoft trade show in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 4.

Civilians try out unloaded bazookas at a Military Academy recruitment drive at the MOA airsoft trade show in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 4.

Civilians try out unloaded bazookas at the MOA Exhibition trade show in Taipei on Dec. 4.


Special Forces soldiers at a Military Academy recruitment drive at the MOA airsoft trade show in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 4.

Special Forces soldiers at a Military Academy recruitment drive at the MOA airsoft trade show in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 4.

Taiwanese soldiers take part in a recruitment drive at the MOA Exhibition in Taipei on Dec. 4.

For some, Kuma Academy is not enough. While Vanessa and her classmates were tying tourniquets on one another’s arms, less than a mile away at the Taipei World Trade Center, another strand of the civil defense movement was gathering at the annual MOA (Military, Outdoor, Airsoft-Airgun) Exhibition, a trade fair centered on airsoft weapons, almost all of which are manufactured in Taiwan. Electric- or gas-powered, they look and feel like real firearms. Taiwan has some of the strictest gun controls in the world, making firearm ownership effectively impossible for most civilians, but war games with airsoft weapons have become a popular hobby. Now, they are taking on a more serious dimension. 

Max Chiang, 48, a weapons instructor at the exhibition, said student numbers had quadrupled since the invasion of Ukraine, with ordinary civilians paying up to $130 for weekend weapon courses. The Taiwanese military had a recruiting stand at the exhibition that was doing a brisk trade, and a stall run by Ukrainian expatriates was selling homemade cakes and vodka flavored with cinnamon and honey to raise money for their homeland.


A member of the armed forces demonstrates an unloaded light machine gun to an elementry school aged boy at a Military Academy recruitment drive at the MOA airsoft trade show in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 4.

A member of the armed forces demonstrates an unloaded light machine gun to an elementry school aged boy at a Military Academy recruitment drive at the MOA airsoft trade show in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 4.

A Taiwanese soldier shows a civilian how to use an unloaded light machine gun at the MOA Exhibition in Taipei on Dec. 4.

Nearby, Ou Chia-Cheng, a 37-year-old freelance photographer, was working his way through a close-range airsoft firing drill. He completed Taiwan’s compulsory military service in 2004 and then worked for seven years in China. Now, he has returned to Taiwan and banded together with 15 friends and begun to prepare for the worst. They have been practicing with airsoft guns and storing food. He said he will fight if necessary.

One of the most organized airsoft training groups is Camp 66, founded by retired U.S. Marine Richard Limon and former Taiwanese naval officer Xiong Qisheng. Limon puts trainees through scenarios and asks them to make rapid decisions—and then throws spent shell casings at them if they hesitate because “you are dead. You have just lost a life if you fail to make decisions.” The group uses factories to prepare for urban warfare, which, Limon said, would be a “nightmare” in the close confines of a high-rise city such as Taipei. The airsoft weapons, he acknowledged, don’t have the recoil or noise of a real firearm, but “we will be better off than [Ukrainian] citizens. They had to train with fake wooden firearms at the beginning.”


Shaun Tai (left), a salesman, and Kevin Chen (right), an airline pilot are pictured at Camp 66, an airsoft firing range and training facility in Taipei, Tawain on Dec. 6.

Shaun Tai (left), a salesman, and Kevin Chen (right), an airline pilot are pictured at Camp 66, an airsoft firing range and training facility in Taipei, Tawain on Dec. 6.

Tai (left) and Kevin Chen (right), an airline pilot, are pictured at Camp 66 in Taipei on Dec. 6.

One of the Camp 66 trainees is 25-year-old laptop salesman Shaun Tai. He started playing video games in his teens and then graduated to airsoft training as a hobby. Now, he is preparing to defend his country. Another attendee, 34-year-old airline pilot Kevin Chen, says invasion is inevitable and the outcome uncertain, but he is learning how to use airsoft weapons because “we should at least make it hard. Don’t just give up and lie down and surrender.” Ukraine has shown, he said, “how effective you can be if you have the heart to do it.”

Among the trainees at Kuma and Camp 66, there is a consensus that invasion could come within as few as five years. Limon thinks it could be sooner than that, comparing the situation to the shock 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. “That was because Argentina had an internal economic crisis and needed a distraction. And that’s the situation in China right now,” he said. 


Hank Chen (left), a university student fires an airsoft machine gun replica as Richard Limon, a firearms instructor and former U.S. Marine watches during firearms training at Camp 66, a firing range and training facility in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 6.

Hank Chen (left), a university student fires an airsoft machine gun replica as Richard Limon, a firearms instructor and former U.S. Marine watches during firearms training at Camp 66, a firing range and training facility in Taipei, Taiwan on Dec. 6.

Hank Chen (left), a university student, fires an airsoft machine gun as Richard Limon, a firearms instructor and retired U.S. Marine, watches during firearms training at Camp 66 in Taipei on Dec. 6.

It is a sentiment echoed by I-Chung Lai, the president of the Taipei-based Prospect Foundation, which specializes in cross-strait relations. The lesson of Ukraine, he said, is that dictators do not always behave rationally. The fact that China is not yet ready to mount an invasion, and that a war would be disastrous for both sides, does not necessarily mean that it won’t happen. 

The Taiwanese government clearly regards the burgeoning civil defense organizations as mainly a good thing. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu last month told journalists that the government was giving close consideration to how to involve civilians in a decentralized defense effort that would include local governments, NGOs, and “grassroots-level” organizations. “Defending Taiwan is our own responsibility, and we are determined to defend ourselves. We have no right to ask others to help us if we are not prepared to defend ourselves,” Wu said.

The government has signaled that it intends to increase compulsory national service to one year. Currently, there are just 165,000 active-duty troops and about 20,000 short-term conscripts out of a total population of nearly 24 million. 

Meanwhile, there is some rivalry between the civil defense organizations and little agreement on the correct approach. Limon is careful not to disparage Kuma Academy but emphasizes that “they are quite separate from what we are doing.” His trainees are not so tactful. Tai described Kuma as “just a bunch of idiots who are pretending they are preparing for the war. They are a little bit useless. If they really want to prepare, they have to learn to use airsoft weapons.”

The civil defense movement agrees about one thing. As Kuma founder Ho said, the best chance of preventing war is to prepare. “If we send a message that we will lie down and be friendly and not resist, then the risk of invasion goes sky-high.”

Taiwanese Flock to Civil Defense Training Ahead of Potential Chinese Invasion

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