The young colonel pointed through the window at the coast of China: ‘There it is, the mainland, bandit territory,’ he said, using the official jargon not much heard these days outside military circles. ‘And on your left, you see Kin-men.’ You could see most of the island, better known as Quemoy, with its neat paddy-fields and mud-coloured villages. Like most frontlines against communism, Quemoy, the small island between mainland China and nationalist Taiwan, is a little absurd. The last major battle there was in 1958. Since then there have been exchanges of pot-shots, but those ended in the late 1970s. Yet there are guards at every intersection – one always wearing a gas-mask. On the beaches there are anti-landing devices and barbed wire fencing; the waters are said to be mined. There is a field hospital dug deep into the granite rock, part of a network of underground tunnels spanning the whole island. It is extremely expensive and almost entirely symbolic, for the struggle itself is symbolic, waged mostly by the Political Warfare Department.

In the Political Warfare Museum the visitor is shown photographs of poor mainland Chinese peasants, toiling en masse, like Egyptian slaves in a Cecil B. De Mille epic. There are pictures of atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution. There are everyday items: old tubes of toothpaste; dusty, rock-hard bars of soap; torn and stained clothes. In contrast there is Taiwan: photos of laughing people at the seaside and nice new apartment buildings, samples of attractive tinned foods, colourful T-shirts, pop music cassettes and miniature video games – all of which are packed into helium balloons, or plastic floats, and dispatched to the mainland as examples of modern prosperity and benevolent rule – proof that the Kuomintang, the ruling party of the Republic of China, takes better care of its people than the Communist Party. ‘It is very important that the people on the mainland know this,’ said the colonel, ‘for then they will be on our side.’

And the nationalist Kuomintang is everywhere, a benevolent Big Brother – in Confucian terms, Superior Man – whose legitimacy lies in his capacity to take care of little people. In Taiwan, the Superior Men are the élite from mainland China, ruling the Taiwanese people, trying to shape them in their own mainland image. This image is inescapable. The National Palace Museum; the memorials, statues and portraits of the two nationalist leaders, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen, the promulgation of Chiang Kai-shek’s writings and perhaps more important, Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People: Nationalism, Democracy and Prosperity. The image is conveyed in the national language, Mandarin Chinese, brought over by Chiang Kai-shek’s mainlanders in 1949 – the official language on an island where almost 80 per cent of the population speaks the Fukien dialect, about as different from Mandarin as Italian from French.

Saigon Dreaming