On a sleepy Sunday morning 50 anonymous young men and women have wandered into a nondescript Taipei office for training with Kuma Academy. The one-day course includes cross-strait geopolitics and strategy, invasion scenarios, and disinformation. Later, they’re taught the difference between the opposing armies’ uniforms, and how to tie a tourniquet.
The citizen warriors are being trained with a 1bn Taiwan dollar (£28m) donation from businessman Robert Tsao. He made global headlines last month when he pledged the money to train “three million people in three years” and 300,000 sharpshooters for a civilian militia. The “warrior” training would be in conjunction with the academy, a volunteer civilian training organisation that launched in 2021.
The proposal answered a growing domestic appetite for civilians to be better prepared for a Chinese invasion. Beijing has pledged to annex Taiwan, under a disputed claim that it is a province of China. Officials emphasise they prefer peaceful means, but with a majority of Taiwanese opposed to unification, that would mean surrender, which Taiwan has vowed it will not do.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the efforts of the far smaller country to defend itself have only further inspired Taiwan’s people, many of whom are signing up to military and urban workshops and seminars.
Tsao, 75, who made his fortune as founder of United Microelectronics Corp (UMC), Taiwan’s second largest microchip manufacturer, and as an art collector, wasn’t always on this side. Raised in Taiwan under the nationalist military rule of the Kuomintang, Tsao says he was taught to be wary of communism, but was reassured “when they started to reform”.
He has had extensive business dealings with China, and in 2007 lobbied for a unification referendum. In 2011 he renounced his Taiwanese citizenship and split his time between Singapore and Hong Kong, angry at investigations into his business. He was in Hong Kong when the pro-democracy protests began, and it was the Yuen Long incident, when gangs of thugs attacked commuters without punishment, which ended any goodwill Tsao still had towards Beijing.
“That especially told me that in any talk or deal with the Chinese Communist party you will get nothing, that it’s very dangerous,” he said, describing it as a “crime syndicate disguised as a nation”.
“It has shrunk free speech, arrested human rights lawyers, Uyghurs, cracked down on freedom of Hong Kong and now they threaten Taiwan any way they can.”
This year, Tsao returned to Taiwan, regained his citizenship and committed to its defence, announcing a US$100m donation in August for “whatever was helpful”. He was introduced to the Kuma Academy, one of the more organised grassroots training groups to spring up in recent years. In September he announced the pledge for warrior training and plans to develop drones for the military.
Kuma proposed training up to 20,000, Tsao says. “But from what I know Xi Jinping may start an invasion in five years, so I said we need to train three million people, in three years.”
Back at the academy, one 20-year-old student tells the Observer she decided to come when China launched military drills around Taiwan after a visit by US speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“The best thing I learned today was about understanding conspiracies, and now I can identify what is fake and what is trustable,” she says, adding that her fears for war are exacerbated by what she reads online.
“The information today has settled my heart, made me panic less, and I can help others.”
It’s basic stuff, but Kuma Academy and Tsao hope participants will be inspired to specialise their skills and develop local defence units, perhaps in line with Taiwan’s existing network of volunteer emergency responders.
“We want to decentralise civil defence, and they should work with their neighbourhoods to create their own groups and plans,” course trainer and former politician, He Chung-hui, tells the Observer.
Taiwan’s government has not answered calls for a formal civilian militia. It is prioritising weapons procurement and bolstering the existing armed services. Mandatory conscription was being phased out but is likely returning in preparation for a Chinese attack.
No one knows when that might be. Estimates of Beijing reaching invasion capability start as early as 2025, but its intent is still a guessing game.
Chinese officials recently warned that Taiwanese would be subject to “re-education” after invasion, and that independence advocates would be punished. Tsao, potentially high on that list, sometimes wears a bulletproof vest in public. He will neither return to nor transit through Hong Kong or China out of security concerns, and says he is committed to the island.
“China is marching to disaster, like Putin, but they can’t stop,” he says.
“My message to local Taiwanese is: our fate is in our hands. If you fight as bravely as Ukrainians, you will preserve your freedom and democracy.”
Additional reporting by Chi Hui Lin