Last year, Taiwanese tycoon Robert Tsao (曹興誠) pledged one billion New Taiwan dollars ($32.79 million) to fund civil defense training in Taiwan. Since then, the main recipient of the cash and source of the proposed training, Kuma Academy, has appeared regularly in international media, often under emphatic headlines such as “Taiwanese Flock to Civil Defense Training Ahead of Potential Chinese Invasion.” These headlines, though, almost certainly elide quite how large the task in front of Kuma is — and how complex it is.
The academy’s self-stated aim is to promote civil defense education to three million people within three years. This number comes from a compromise between the ideal that “each household should have one [person] who has the knowledge,” which was judged “impossible,” and the ideal that ten times as many people as those active in the military should be trained, according to Puma Shen (沈伯洋), the co-founder, who spoke to us during a basic session in Taipei last Saturday.
However, almost seven months after Tsao’s announcement, there remains an extremely long way to go if the three million figure is to be achieved. “Right now we’ve had 3,000 [people], and this month will be [up to] 5,000,” Shen told us, while also being quite open about why bridging that gap will be very difficult. “Just my wild guess,” he said, “I think when we reach 200,000 or 300,000 that will be a challenge to us. Because certain groups of people are very willing to do this kind of stuff, but when they have all [been] trained, there are big groups of people who are apolitical, don’t care about politics, and they really need to learn this kind of stuff but they don’t have the motivation.”
This chimes with the experience of interviewing participants on Saturday. The people we spoke to had become worried about Taiwan’s situation following the war in Ukraine, but they also were clearly more politically engaged than the average person. Illustrating the point quite neatly, one particularly eloquent participant we spoke to, 23-year-old Emily Chen, turned out to be the assistant of a Taiwanese legislator.
This gets onto the next potential obstacle in Kuma’s way: The potential for internal disagreement making the job harder.
On top of practical training such as how to tie a tourniquet and identify the opposing armies’ uniforms, the basic course we saw on Saturday focused on identifying disinformation in order to preserve Taiwanese unity. In doing this it offered two main categories for disinformation: Outright “fake news,” and “narratives,” both coming from the Chinese government and being spread through Taiwanese social media. The first category is relatively uncontroversial, but harder cases in the second depend on your perspective and can cause important disagreement. Who, for instance, is to decide what is too much bigging up the Chinese military, or talking down the Taiwanese military (an area of thought that the basic class we saw focused on)?
Shen’s solution to this is “transparency and disclosure.” He points out, “We never really hide our stance. So for me I’m definitely not [pro]-China. I’m not anti-China. We always talk about the [Chinese Communist Party], it’s not about the Chinese people. But I just don’t agree with what the Chinese government does.” And from here, he says what’s important is identifying the source of information and providing an alternative narrative, rather than saying a narrative is outright wrong.
The content of the basic session reflected this. There was very much an emphasis on the positive when it comes to Taiwan’s ability to defend itself — and participants we spoke to said they were more optimistic after the session than before it. But whether this is what everyone in Taiwan wants to hear is open to question: One of the YouTube channels cited as pushing the wrong kind of narrative — CtiTv (中天電視) — has more than three million followers. (CtiTv’s broadcast news license was not renewed by the government in 2020 amid allegations of editorial interference by the Chinese government.)
The difficulty almost certainly does not end there, either. Kuma plans to expand its reach with online classes starting in the coming months. But Shen told us it is also wants to negotiate with Taiwan’s government about the possibility of working with schools (by giving them teaching materials, rather than having their instructors go in directly). Along with universities, which they already work in, this could be the source of over a million participants, but it could also be another site of controversy — particularly as Kuma is a social enterprise, hoping to make a small profit at some point (albeit right now Shen says it is losing money on every session.)
None of this is to say that Kuma’s task is impossible. In person it looked well organized and well staffed. But while its point that “the will of the people to resist will determine the outcome of the war” sounds like a simple premise, like anything that tries to pull millions of people in the same direction, it’s a major task. On Saturday, we watched a room full of around 45 enthusiastic young people giving up their free time to do what they think is the right thing to do for Taiwan. But this doesn’t mean that millions of people will immediately be ready to hop on board. There is still a long way to go.