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.
“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.
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.