Civil defence is trending in Taiwan after Ukraine war

Taipei, Taiwan – Late on an April weeknight, the mood in a basement office workshop in Taipei is surprisingly upbeat as participants take turns wrapping each other in homemade stretchers and learn how to pack a gunshot wound. The event, organised by non-governmental organisation Forward Alliance, is the first of a series of workshops designed to teach civilians the basics of trauma medicine and the skills to survive an emergency.

Violent crime is rare in Taiwan, but the subtropical island sits along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Earth’s tectonic plates rub against each other, so it is regularly hit by earthquakes. With typhoons and the occasional flood or rockslide also part of the mix, learning what to expect and how to prepare is an essential skill for many Taiwanese.

But more recently, people have been thinking about Taiwan’s position in yet another hotspot – as the target of China’s ruling Communist Party.

In a conflict dating back to the 1940s, Beijing has promised to unify China and Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, peacefully or by force; the two sides remain in a precarious status quo.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, however, has reminded many Taiwanese of the potential danger although it has been decades since the two sides squared off militarily.

Forward Alliance trauma class
Participants at a Forward Alliance workshop in Taiwan practice making tourniquets and learn other skills to stop wounds from bleeding out [Courtesy of Forward Alliance]

“It’s not inspiration per se, but what happened in Ukraine kind of gave us an alert that we probably need to learn about what to do in an emergency,” Wei-lin Tseng, a Taipei-based professional, told Al Jazeera after the workshop. “I think it’s motivation, and it’s also good to know techniques, so you can help others.”

Tseng said he and his partner also recently prepared a “go-bag” of essential goods for themselves and their dog, inspired by the invasion of Ukraine and the catastrophic 2011 tsunami in Japan – another event that has had an outsized influence on Taiwan.

Civilian preparation

The goal of Forward Alliance’s workshops is to “empower” Taiwanese, said Jack Yu-tang Chang, secretary of the Taiwan Society of Paramedicine.

“We’re trying to teach our people to get more prepared and empower them to do this in their own community, so they don’t just wait for emergency services or government resources,” he said.

Even with 15 workshops available each month, the Forward Alliance sessions were running at full capacity in April. The group plans to expand its offerings, but they are not the only option for Taiwanese looking for a little extra preparation. From practical skills-based workshops to lectures, handbooks, and privately-organised defence groups, civilian organisations are trying to prepare Taiwan for an uncertain future.

Tao Ham, a pro-Taiwan independence activist and co-founder of the 30-person Taiwan Pangolin Civil Defence Association, said he has seen a resurgent interest in his civil defence group as a result of what is happening in Ukraine. He founded the group several years ago in response to “China’s aggression” – a fear that has not subsided as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues its ambitious march towards modernisation.

For decades, the PLA was not strong enough to attack Taiwan’s main island, but some estimates say it could have the capacity to do so as soon as 2025 or 2027.

Whether China will attack is another matter. Beijing has not ruled out “peaceful” unification, but China’s “aggressive ambitions” worry Taiwanese like Tao. “I realised that Taiwan’s defence system needs to be strengthened because only by relying on strength can we defend our democracy and way of life, so we invested in civil defence initiatives,” he said.

Forward Alliance Taiwan Stop the Bleed Workshop
The curriculum of Forward Alliance workshops is based on Stop the Bleed, a US-based campaign to minimise preventable deaths from bleed-outs [Courtesy of Forward Alliance]

Strong body, strong mind

Joining the military, however, is not a popular solution for many people due to its longstanding association with Taiwan’s previous authoritarian government. Most men are required to perform a brief stint of mandatory military service, but it has been whittled down to just four months with other alternative service options available.

Since the war in Ukraine started, Tao said there has been an increase of interest not just in his group but also at his local air pistol shooting range, one of the few places where non-Indigenous Taiwanese can legally practise with a firearm outside the military.

What constitutes sufficient preparation, however, depends on the individual.

Angel Wu, a graphic designer, attended three civil defence talks in March organised by Open Knowledge Taiwan and said the experience was eye-opening. Before attending the events, she thought she had a good understanding of how to prepare for events like earthquakes, but admitted later it was “scary” how little she knew.

Taiwan under attack in Watch Out handbook on civil defence
Many Taiwanese are prepared for natural disasters, but now some are preparing for man-made ones like war, as seen in this civil defence guidebook from Watch Out [Al Jazeera]

Open Knowledge Taiwan’s talks focus on explaining skills like how to acquaint oneself with Taiwan’s emergency services and its 117,000 air raid shelters – some of which are little more than building basements – as well as advice on what kind of gear to buy, including radios or satellite phones.

One key takeaway from the talks, Wu said, was that she also needed to work on her physical strength. “You have to have physical skills, and you have to have a strong body to survive, which I don’t have, so it actually kind of concerns me,” she said, adding that she plans to go to the gym more when Taiwan’s latest COVID-19 outbreak subsides.

“For people my age, we grew up wealthy and had no war during our childhood. Most people think that war is [part of] the last century, and this is not going to happen to them,” Wu said. “But war is happening anytime anywhere in the world, not just Taiwan or Ukraine.”

How to act in a war 

In April, the Ministry of Defence and the civil society group Watch Out each released civil defence guidebooks similar to publications released by the governments of Sweden and Lithuania.

While the Ministry of Defence guidebook caused a media stir when it was released, much of its information is basic common-sense skills for emergencies, said TH Schee, who often gives lectures on behalf of Open Knowledge Taiwan. He told Al Jazeera the war in Ukraine and its heavy civilian toll had raised the bar for Taiwan’s government on how to prepare its people for the effect of war.

“The average person already knows where to get fresh water … or how you respond when there is no electricity. That’s part of our life because we are hit by typhoons on a regular basis,” Schee said, comparing the book to something like a poster. “You get the basic idea but in order to respond you need a deeper level of information which is not possible to find in this simple book.”

Taiwan civil defence handbook
A handbook on civil defence from the civil society group Watch Out explains how to distinguish between Taiwanese and Chinese military uniforms. (Al Jazeera)

Watch Out’s lengthier booklet contains familiar sections on how to prepare emergency supplies, but also advice on how to respond to a terrorist attack, distinguish between the uniforms and vehicles of Taiwan’s military and the PLA, and the dangers of fake news and misinformation claiming that Taiwan has “surrendered”.

The handbook also offers advice on how to behave during a war and how civilians can help by providing Taiwanese forces with food, accommodation, and intelligence, and to avoid being drawn into any provocations or propaganda exercises carried out by an occupying force.

Watch Out Chief Operating Officer Kuo-chun Hung said the point of the handbook was to show Taiwanese that they can respond to any kind of emergency, whether it is war or a natural disaster.

“There is always something you can do, you’re not just hiding and waiting for survival,” Hung said, adding that “We can handle different kinds of disasters. War is a man-made crisis or disaster, but it’s something we can handle. You shouldn’t be that worried about it, you should be prepared, but then you don’t have to worry too much.”

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