On a sunny Saturday afternoon this month, Charles Chi, a captain of the Republic of China Army, stood with 11 others in a park located between the towering Taipei 101 and Xiangshan, or Elephant Mountain, two of the most popular tourist attractions in Taiwan’s capital.
“What I am teaching you is based on what US special forces do,” Chi, 40, told his comrades.
When Chi is not training Taiwanese army recruits as part of his day job, he can sometimes be found here, instructing civilians on survival techniques through the Doomsday Preppers Association, Taiwan.
Beginning in 2012 as a Facebook group that Chi now moderates, the association currently has about 8,700 nominal members. Between the ominous name and its sometimes flippant posts – such as an injunction against wearing jeans in hot weather, and jokes about learning to fight like fictional former hitman John Wick – it is easy to picture a band of gun-toting men expecting the end of civilisation.
In reality, the members who turned up for the training session were rather sober-minded, well-educated people from white-collar professions. Knight Lin, 27, is a software engineer. Fifty-two-year-old Yang Bi-lin is a manager at an automation design company.
They approached the training with business-like seriousness. None betrayed any sense of cosplaying for the zombie apocalypse.
But, as this is Taiwan, the threat of genuine crises lurks – although whether such scenarios are deserving of the “doomsday” label is another matter. Married couple John, 40, and Yuko, 35 – who asked us not to use their last names – work in medicine. They pointed to the frequency of both typhoons and earthquakes in this corner of the Pacific.
“The September 21 earthquake caused massive loss of power and communications,” Yuko said, referring to the 1999 Jiji earthquake that killed 2,415 people. It was the second-deadliest earthquake in Taiwan’s history.
“I’m particularly worried about communications being cut,” said John, explaining why he and Yuko had chosen this particular training session on radio equipment and on how best to use it. The morning involved a three-and-half-hour presentation by Chi about different types of radio equipment and technical concepts such as voltage standing wave ratio or VSWR, a measure of an antenna’s efficiency.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: the possibility of an invasion by the People’s Republic of China, which sees Taiwan as a part of its sovereign territory that must, sooner or later, be unified with the motherland. Much ink has been spilled on the topic by foreign policy experts. Top US military officers have prognosticated an attack by 2027, with some even predicting it for 2023. The December issue of The Atlantic magazine carries an article with the title “Taiwan Prepares to be Invaded.”
“Our membership grew by tenfold when Covid hit,” said Chi. Then, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “discussions in the Facebook group became all about the possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait.”
To Yuko, earlier threats from Beijing seemed like idle talk. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, though, she realised war was something that could suddenly happen.
She also pointed to the recently ended 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party as reinforcing a crisis mentality among some Taiwanese. At the congress, China’s leader Xi Jinping reaffirmed the party’s commitment to take control of Taiwan, by force if necessary.
After the congress, many of Yuko’s younger acquaintances grew concerned about the possibility of war. “Although older people still think we are like the man of Qi worrying that the sky will fall,” she said, using a classical Chinese phrase describing those who worry unnecessarily.
“The Taiwanese have been too comfortable,” Chi said. “You can buy food on every street corner at any time, so people don’t know they should stock food,” he added, referring to the ubiquity of 24-hour convenience stores in Taiwan. “I’m quite worried.”
Many others share his concern. In the face of the threat from Beijing, groups such as this one have popped up to provide training on subjects such as first aid and civil defence. Other examples include the brand-new Kuma Academy and the Forward Alliance, led by Taiwanese politician Enoch Wu.
The rise of such initiatives reflects a sense among Taiwan residents, including many of the members who came to the training, that the island’s government is not doing enough to prepare its people for the dreaded contingency.
In fact, an official was among the attendees. He expressed his concerns as Chi demonstrated how to elevate a portable antenna to improve a radio signal: by tying a water bottle to one end of a rope and then throwing it over a tree branch, using the weight to pull the antenna up.
Amo Huang, 41, works in the executive branch of Taiwan’s central government, though he came in his personal capacity as a concerned citizen. “The government moves more slowly because it needs legislation to do anything,” Huang explained, “and it takes forever to pass a law.”
Similarly, Chris Chen, a 40-year-old brand consultant, came to the session despite being a reserve officer in the military. Dressed in fatigues, he recalled serving as a second lieutenant in the Marine corps during his compulsory military service.
The required term of service has been shortened from 11 months in Chen’s day to merely four months today. “That’s not enough time to learn anything,” Chen said. Even his 11 months in the service did not leave him feeling fully prepared, which was why he had joined Chi’s session. “There is training for reservists,” he said, “but it’s not very serious. Three to five days, you drink some beer, and then go home.”
Although a September training session introduced attendees to Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art designed for military use, the Doomsday Preppers Association isn’t focused on preparing to fight. Gun laws are strict in Taiwan. Even marine reservist Chen only keeps a bow and arrows as a weapon. “Not a crossbow,” he pointed out. “That would be illegal.”
When Chi told trainees he was teaching them how US special forces operate, he meant how to manage with minimal equipment. “They can’t carry all that weight with them,” he said.
However, his references to American soldiers serve, perhaps inadvertently, to highlight another issue: Taiwan’s dependence on the US for defence assistance. The US is Taiwan’s chief weapons supplier, and the Taiwanese widely expect American intervention in the event of war. The longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity,” though, means that whether and how the US may get involved is actually far from certain.
The final portion of the day involved climbing up Elephant Mountain so members could practise using their radio equipment. Other members of the group not in attendance had agreed to stay by their radios between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to allow trainees to practise their newfound skills.
“If we miss the window, we miss the window,” Chi said as he led the group onto the trail. “But then again, that’s true with special forces troops, as well.”
And for a while it didn’t look like all of the group would make it to the top in time. Most were not particularly young, and some could do with improving their fitness. “We’re office workers, you know,” Huang said as he struggled up the trail.
In fact, it might have been part of Chi’s purpose to corral the members into a hike. Elephant Mountain tops out at 183 metres above sea level.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in often rainy Taipei, many residents had flocked to the scenic spot. As members of the Doomsday Preppers Association reached the designated spot near the top of the mountain from which to test their radios, they attracted some curious glances.
“Looks like they’re doing what US special forces do,” an older observer remarked.
“Ah, but what the Americans do is so outdated now,” the companion replied.
Perhaps Chi didn’t hear them, or perhaps he didn’t care. By pulling out their radios and raising their antennas at the popular weekend destination, his trainees were in a way spreading the message of preparedness. More requests for membership in his Facebook group might be waiting for him when he got home.
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