Bolstering Taiwan’s Civil Defense

As the world grapples with unprecedented challenges, the resilience of Taiwanese citizens is being put to the test.

In April 2021, the Taroko Express train No. 408 derailed as it was about to enter a tunnel in Hualien County, killing 49 people and injuring over 200. It was a disaster that shook the country.

Without the actions of one young passenger, the death toll would almost certainly have been higher. Rather than panicking, a young man in one of the cars phoned 119 (Taiwan’s emergency number). To better assess the situation, the dispatcher arranged for them to video chat over the communications app Line. 

To the dispatcher’s surprise, the passenger asked whether he could help triage the victims. Triaging is a method for preliminary assessment to determine the urgency of a victim’s need for treatment and the nature of the treatment required – a life-saving exercise that aids rescue workers.

“Time and again, we learn from tragedies around the world that immediate civilian action ‘upon impact’ is the ultimate difference maker when disasters strike,” says Enoch Wu, founder of Taiwanese national security and civil defense think tank Forward Alliance. His organization’s training courses cover the basics of triaging, in addition to emergency medicine, search and rescue, personal safety, and basic survival.

Wu, a Taiwanese policy advocate and former special forces soldier, founded Forward Alliance in 2020 to promote greater awareness of defense issues and national security, as well as to further involve civilians in civil defense and disaster relief.

“The best way to deter military conflict is to demonstrate a credible national will to resist, by combining military readiness with civil preparedness,” Wu told the media in 2022. “We are working to unify efforts across society, getting first responders like the fire agency and the police force, civic organizations, and the general public to work together on a regular basis. It is a bad idea to practice mobilization and collaboration for the first time during a crisis.”

Organizations such as Forward Alliance have sprung up in response to what legislators and military experts have deemed a longtime lack of government attention to civil defense. Many Taiwanese are unaware of the official civil defense system, which was first implemented during the Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), they say.

Everyday citizens participate in large-scale simulations to prepare for the mental shock of a crisis.

“What people don’t recognize is that we already have civil defense forces in Taiwan,” T.H. Schee, a representative of information-sharing NGO Open Knowledge Taiwan, told The Diplomat last year. “Sure, most of [the participants] are between the ages of 50 and 70, and the annual four-hour training is more like a karaoke session,” he added. “But they exist.”

In Taiwan, civil defense is managed by the Ministry of the Interior and its National Police Agency (NPA). According to the Civil Defense Act, the all-volunteer civil defense units are organized at four levels – from cities and counties down to factories and schools – and are tasked to maintain “local social order and assist in rescue operations of serious disasters during peacetime,” as well as to handle “air defense evacuation and shelter, and support military tasks” during wartime.

At times of war, decentralization can allow local governments, authorities, and citizens more room to take initiative and the autonomy to react in a rapidly changing environment, says Yurii Poita, Ukrainian expert and visiting research fellow at the Ministry of National Defense’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR).

“In the Ukrainian case, there are about 25 civil defense brigades, and each brigade is connected to a specific region of Ukraine, making defense forces more flexible,” he says. “During wartime, many things could be destroyed or disrupted, so defense forces should be more flexible and less dependent on the order from the top level of commands.”

Taiwan’s civil defense structure also involves decentralization, but observers say it has come at the cost of looser supervision. Although the civil defense units are supposed to undergo rigorous training from the Ministry of the Interior and local governments, legislators report that this standard is not being met.

A review by the Taiwan Statebuilding Party in September last year found that only a minuscule portion of the funds designated by local governments for civil defense is allocated to training. Of the NT$24.68 million (US$783,000) that Taipei allocated for civil defense annually between 2020 and 2022, only NT$1.02 million – or 4% – was spent on training volunteers, while the rest went for social activities such as year-end banquets and special gatherings.

The review also found that Taichung, Kaohsiung, and Yilan County used only 2%, 10%, and 13%, respectively, of their civil defense budgets for training.

“The more we look into our civil defense preparedness, the less we feel confident of the readiness of Taiwanese,” Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Lin Ching-yi told media last year.

AmCham Taiwan staff learn how to stop heavy bleeding during a Forward Alliance training course.

Another issue is the lack of standardized criteria for determining the required number of civil defense personnel in each county or city. As a result, Taipei has 7,000 volunteers listed in its civil defense unit, while Taoyuan, which covers four times the area of Taipei, has only 2,500.

Further, the Civil Defense Act and the Ministry of the Interior’s Civil Defense Mobilization Guidelines offer little guidance to the units apart from stating that they are to support the military in wartime and help people cope with disasters in peacetime.

But Wu and his team are not looking for increased government effort. “Taiwan’s public leaders need to understand that involving and empowering civil society is the key to transforming civil defense,” says Wu. “Instead of creating more government programs and focusing on command and control, we would fare better if we built trust and partnerships.”

The instructors at Forward Alliance are active-duty first responders with real-life experience and insight into crisis situations. “By having professionals and volunteers training and learning from each other on a regular basis, we build the connections, trust, and confidence essential in any crisis,” says Wu.

“We have one firefighter for every 1,500 civilians – that’s about 16,000 in all of Taiwan,” he adds, stressing that the actions of civilians can be a matter of life or death when rescue services are delayed.

Last year, Forward Alliance reached a milestone of 10,000 officially trained civilians, with thousands more signing up to participate in future courses. The organization will soon make its training manuals public to help organizations train their staff independently. “There is nothing that says ‘I care’ more convincingly than investing in the safety and security of your people,” says Wu.

Winning the mind game

Another major contributor to civil preparedness in Taiwan is the non-profit civil defense training organization Kuma Academy. With the help of a generous donation from semiconductor mogul Robert Tsao, who has been a vehement advocate for a stronger Taiwanese civil defense, the organization began offering civil defense training courses in 2022.

Last year, Kuma Academy trained 35,000 people and interacted with 12 million through media outreach, publications, and social media. Courses at Kuma cover topics like first aid, seeking shelter in and away from war zones, media literacy, and training in open-source intelligence and cybersecurity.

“The best strategy for China is to buy Taiwan or win the psychological war by getting citizens to believe Taiwan can’t resist and to just become a part of the PRC,” says Aha Chu, CEO of Kuma Academy.

Critical thinking is imperative to national resilience. Aaron Huang, brand manager of Kuma Academy, describes an incident in 2019 when China flooded Taiwan’s social media space with 20,000 accounts posting 1,500 responses per day with discussions about air pollution in Taiwan, claiming that air quality had gotten worse and couldn’t be fixed because of Taiwan’s “corrupt” energy companies.

The accusations greatly upset many people who took them as credible and ignited a heated backlash against the government from environmental groups. The controversy and the conspiracy theories it generated tarnished Taiwan’s image.

Such disinformation campaigns can seriously harm social stability, and INDSR’s Poita warns that the same type of activity could also undermine Taiwan’s national security, for example by creating negative perceptions of the armed forces.

 “China could use propaganda and disinformation or misinformation to try to drive a wedge” between the government and its citizens, which is “exactly what Russia is doing” in Ukraine, Poita says.

Kuma Academy partners with Taiwan’s product manufacturers to provide essential gear and supplies for survival.

In the initial stages, Kuma’s courses were based on the importance of distinguishing friend from foe. “Now it’s evolving into a psychology course, because I think China is trying to influence us in a different way” – seeking to undercut Taiwanese sense of identity as belonging to an entity separate from China. 

Kuma engages in outdoor and marketing events, a prominent one being its monthly civil defense-themed children’s fair, held in several locations and with around 10,000 total participants each time. Through games at these fairs, kids practice first aid, memorize key information about themselves and their parents that would help the police locate them in an emergency, and learn what to do if they hear sirens or alarms.

Expansion of the civil defense ecosystem has been supported through the sale of relevant products. “We are working towards individual first aid, sanitation products, food source products, and water filtering products in Taiwan and hopefully not just Taiwan,” says Huang. Increasing Kuma’s customer base through marketing efforts and attendance at trade shows is also a way to further spread the message of the importance of civil defense.

Another set of specialists – one that most Taiwanese aren’t even aware of – is also available to help boost civil defense. “Dozens of Taiwanese participated in the war on the Ukrainian side as volunteers, and one of them, Jonathan Tseng, was even killed on the battlefield,” says Poita.

These volunteers have insights into the harsh realities of war that academics and local instructors lack, especially given that combat today vastly differs from what it was decades ago. “When they returned to Taiwan, they told me that almost no one was interested in their experience,” Poita says. “It seems Taiwan doesn’t use this opportunity 100%.”

Among the practical lessons these volunteers have learned from first-hand experience is the importance of technology in creating a more effective national resistance. Knowing how to operate drones is becoming almost as vital to civil defense as finding shelter and learning first aid.

“Artificial intelligence is integrated into drones to make them smarter and more resilient against jamming systems,” says Poita. “There is a huge demand for people to operate these drones properly. And not only operate them but also assemble them.” 

Whether through technical skills development, training courses, or the promotion of critical thinking, engaging the public in defense efforts will help citizens feel connected to Taiwan and its defense system, Poita says.

Forward Alliance’s Wu agrees.

“Every family bickers at the dining table,” he says. “But I hope that collective civil defense efforts will help remind us that we are in this together. It is our best hope for a safe and prosperous future.”