1 of 11 | In Taiwan today, many of its citizens train for the possibility of a Chinese invasion. Kuma Academy, the best-known of a handful of private civil defense training organizations in Taiwan, plans to train 3 million citizens in three years. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
TAIPEI, April 5 (UPI) -- On a recent Saturday in Taipei, a few dozen men and women met in a community center beneath a 100-year-old red-brick Presbyterian church. At first glance, it looked like the setting for a cooking or language class, but the students were here for a more serious subject: lessons on what to do if China invades, a once-distant prospect that is increasingly seen as a very real possibility on this self-governing island.
The all-day class was held by Kuma Academy, the best-known of a handful of private civil defense training organizations that have popped up in Taiwan in recent years. In front of a banner featuring the logo of a cartoon bear holding an assault rifle (the group's name is "black bear" in Chinese), instructors taught students about cognitive warfare, invasion scenarios and how to identify Chinese soldiers.
In the afternoon, hands-on first-aid and rescue sessions included applying tourniquets and executing evacuation operations -- skills training that is long overdue, according to Kuma Academy co-founder Ho Cheng-hui.
"Despite the fact that Taiwan has existed under the threat of military incursion from China for the last 70 years, there hasn't been a sense of preparation for war," Ho told UPI in an interview.
Ho, a security specialist, started the non-profit Kuma Academy with disinformation expert Puma Shen in late 2021 and has seen demand for lessons soar throughout the country amid a non-stop stream of cross-Strait provocations from China.
"In people's general imagination of what war would entail, it's just something that unfolds solely between two armies and would not actually affect civilian populations," Ho said. "Our goal is to start building all-out civilian defense preparedness among all aspects of Taiwanese society."
The course, offered four or five times a week at locations all over the island, costs about $35 and routinely sells out minutes after tickets are made available. On this Saturday, many students -- mainly in their 20s and 30s, with more than half of them women -- cited the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a catalyst for attending.
"The Ukraine-Russia war really hit me, in the sense that we also have a hostile neighbor who wants to attack us," Hsieh Hui-yin, a 32-year-old participant said.
"In Taiwan, we are taught to be prepared for earthquakes, to have an emergency bag in the house," she said. "I think we should have the same approach to war -- if you're prepared, you're not going to panic."
At its core, the introductory course is a kind of psychological boot camp, aiming to give citizens the mindset and tools to overcome either hopelessness or a false sense of security against threats from China.
Beijing considers the democratic island of 23 million a wayward province and has vowed to seize control of it by force if necessary. (Taiwan has never been a part of the mainland People's Republic of China, which was founded in 1949, and rejects Beijing's sovereignty claims.)
Incursions by Chinese aircraft into Taiwan's air defense identification zone have become an almost-daily occurrence in recent years, a tactic that Taipei's military calls "gray zone" warfare meant to strain the island's defense capabilities and wear down its morale.
As the Kuma Academy class detailed, Beijing has also launched waves of cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns meant to confuse and frighten citizens and undermine their faith in the Taipei government.
More than 1,000 people have attended Kuma Academy's introductory class, which it calls "Basis Camp," since June. However, the organization has a much bigger audience in sight as it continues to ramp up operations and expand its course offerings: training 3 million citizens over the next three years.
The group received an enormous boost in September when Taiwanese semiconductor magnate Robert Tsao, founder of United Microelectronics Corp., pledged to donate more than $30 million to train millions of "Kuma warriors."
And there may well be a market to meet such lofty aims. According to a Taiwan National Security Studies survey, the willingness of citizens to defend themselves from a Chinese invasion jumped from 33% in September 2020 to 47% in December 2022.
Chen Fang-yu, assistant professor of political science at Soochow University in Taipei, said the trend is largely attributable to grassroots organizations such as Kuma Academy.
"[Kuma Academy] is playing a very important part right now," Chen told UPI. "Their training raises Taiwan's determination and preparation for self-defense. After people take this class, I believe that they will know what to do and they will not give up."
The administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has also taken steps to respond to China's threats, boosting defense spending by 14% and extending mandatory military service from four months to one year.
Chen said that he would like to see greater coordination between private organizations and the government to add elements such as weapons training.
"There's a gap between the citizens and the military," he said. "The government should utilize the popularity of civil defense classes to organize extra military training."
At the same time, opposition lawmakers such as the Kuomintang Party's Wu Sz-huai have criticized civil defense programs, accusing the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of a lack of confidence in the country's armed forces.
For many Kuma Academy students in the church basement, however, the day's class left them inspired and ready for more training.
"Even after one day, this class has already increased my confidence," said Jen Wu, a 31-year-old IT professional. "I knew that Taiwan is not as weak as some think, but seeing all the information organized so systematically really helps. I want to take some advanced courses and see what I can do to help more."
Such mindsets will be crucial for deterring and fighting back against Chinese aggression, said Kuma's Ho.
"[China is] very aware that everything really rests upon whether or not the Taiwanese people are willing to persist in maintaining their own society," Ho said. "And so one of the goals of Kuma Academy is to arouse and awaken people's bravery and willingness to continue to stand up for themselves."