Students Searching For Alternatives After ITT Tech Closes

Joshua Battistin of Orlando, Fla. is one of more than 30,000 students considering options to continue their education following the abrupt closure of the for-profit technical college.

The sign on the campus of ITT Technical Institute in West Covina, Calif. Susan Goldman/Bloomberg via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Susan Goldman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The fall semester has just begun on most college campuses, but tens of thousands of students in 38 states were told Tuesday that, instead, their college is closing its doors.

In a press release, ITT Educational Services announced it would close all campuses of its ITT Technical Institutes. The for-profit college system has become a household name over the past half-century. The company blamed the shutdown on the U.S. Department of Education, which had stepped up oversight of the school and recently imposed tough financial sanctions.

The concerns about ITT involve recruitment and financial practices. For several years now, a group of roughly a dozen state attorneys general had been looking into allegations that ITT misled students about future job prospects and might have accepted students who weren’t qualified for the technical programs they offered.

The company hasn’t been convicted of wrongdoing; nevertheless, the Education Department recently levied a series of financial sanctions against the company, and the school’s accreditor found it out of compliance.

Things came to a head last month when the Education Department essentially cut ITT off from the federal financial aid program. New students would not qualify for federal student loans or Pell Grants, money that is essential to the operation of for-profit colleges. After trying and failing to sell its many campuses, ITT resolved that it had no choice but to cease operations.

In Tuesday’s announcement, the school’s operator criticized the department for what it called “a complete disregard … for due process” and called the Obama administration’s actions “inappropriate and unconstitutional.”

Some 35,000 students now face a difficult choice. The Department of Education will allow them to walk away from their outstanding student loans or transfer all the credits they’ve already earned to a similar program — but not both.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Education Department Undersecretary Ted Mitchell said all students who have been enrolled at an ITT campus within the last 120 days are eligible to apply for what’s called a “closed school discharge” of their student loans. Up to $500 million in outstanding loans could be erased.

At the same time, Mitchell said that “we hope many students will look for transfer opportunities.” To that end, the department is working with community colleges located near ITT campuses, encouraging them to accept ITT students and their credits.

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This District May Close All Of Its High Schools, But It's About Much More Than Money

Superintendent Jay Badams leads a coalition of students, parents, educators, and community members at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., urging state lawmakers to alter policies that have left Erie’s public schools on the brink of insolvency. Kevin McCorry/WHYY hide caption

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In northeast Pennsylvania, along the edge of Lake Erie, you’ll find the city of Erie.

There, the superintendent of the more than 12,000 student district has forwarded a plan that’s causing a stir — calling for leaders to consider shutting down all of the district’s high schools and sending students to the wealthier, whiter, suburban districts.

Why?

Superintendent Jay Badams says it’s a “matter of fairness.”

Erie’s schools have been pushed to the brink after six years of deep budget cuts, and he believes the children in the city’s district — which predominantly serves students of color — are being systematically shortchanged.

That’s in part because urban school districts in Pennsylvania face a particularly brutal logic.

They serve the poorest, most needy students. Yet, when it comes to state funding per pupil, most of them don’t make the top of the list.

Even though Erie is one of the most impoverished districts in the state, and has one of the highest percentages of English language learners, the district currently receives less per-pupil funding from the state than hundreds of other districts.

Excluding pension costs, per-pupil spending in Erie is less than it was in 2008-09.

“If our students would need to attend schools in other districts in order to have some sort of equity, then that may end up being the most ethical and moral decision,” Badams says.

What about the students?

The signs of Erie’s fiscal distress would be hard for students to overlook.

“There’s a perception out there that kids living in poverty, kids living in the inner-city, don’t know what they’re missing,” Badams says. “Well, they do know what they’re missing.”

Many of the aging school buildings have crumbling infrastructure. Books and technology have lagged behind the times.

“We’re a city school and the surrounding districts are higher income and they always think that they’re better than us,” says Nathan Stevens, a junior a Strong Vincent High school on the city’s west side. “That’s just how it works around here.”

Stevens, who’s white, was one of a handful of students gathered in the school library at the end of the school year to talk about the plan to bus students out to those higher income districts.

“Everybody thinks it’s a ghetto school, or that the people that go here are dumb, or bad,” Whitney Henderson says. She’s a year younger than Stevens and African-American.

She worries about what Badams’ proposal would mean for her.

“If I went to Harbor Creek, or if I went to McDowell, I’d feel like an outcast because of my skin color, because I’m black,” says Henderson. “And everybody that goes there is pretty much white.”

Outside reaction

Genene Mattern’s children attend school in the Millcreek School District, in Erie County, one that might absorb kids from the city if the closure plan goes into effect.

“I get a little upset when I hear other parents who are against it totally, because they don’t want ‘Erie city kids,'” says Mattern.

“Now you’re almost trying to put a racial spin on it, and that to me is wrong. They’re children. I don’t care what color, what ethnic background, what social background, they deserve a chance.”

And any of the superintendents in outlying districts, including Millcreek, have said much the same.

So, too, has Sean Wiley, a Democratic state senator who represents Erie and the immediate suburbs.

“These are not city kids. These are not county kids,” he says. “These are our kids across this entire region.”

But the proposal has been the subject of vitriol on social media, where some parents have disparaged Erie students and parents.

And some public officials, including State Rep. Curt Sonney, a Republican who represents a slew of outlying districts, don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea, either: “It’s difficult on any student to have to bus them for miles to a strange new school with all new people.”

A ‘tying mechanism’

There’s a growing body of educators and researchers who say that figuring out the logistics of this proposal would be well worth the extra effort.

At their core, integration plans are a tying mechanism, says Kimberly Quick.

“If the outcomes and the benefits that a school can provide to the son of a janitor are tied to those of the son of a congressman, then they are more likely to get those resources, right?” asks Quick, a policy associate at the Century Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank that advocates for school integration.

Its research finds that integration, when planned and done well, has historically led to major boons for low-income and minority students.

Century says this happens, in large part, based on the superior quality and quantity of resources and teachers are generally made available to richer and whiter schools.

“And that’s how we need to frame this, instead of making it sound like something magical happens when black kids sit next to white kids,” says Quick.

Century also argues that suburban parents don’t need to worry about a negative effect on their children. “There’s no evidence that points to that,” Quick adds.

A county comparison

The issue in Erie is even more complicated because of Pennsylvania’s education funding policies. For most of the past 25 years, the state has distributed money without a rational, student-based formula.

So although Erie is one of the state’s most challenged districts, the state sends more money per-pupil from its main pot of cash to most other districts in the county — including wealthier ones, with less pressing needs, that already have an easier time raising local funds.

“The differences between the resources we have in the county compared to in here are just shocking,” said Brian Polito, chief financial officer for Erie Public Schools.”

Polito used to have a similar job in North East, a rural district in Erie County. Drawing a comparison, he says last year Erie spent $6,000 dollars on its 18 libraries.

“In the school district that I came from, we had three libraries and our budget for library resources was almost $40,000.”

It’s examples like these that has Millcreek parent Genene Mattern completely supporting the stand that superintendent Jay Badams has taken on closing the city’s high schools.

“People need to get mad. People need to get loud, because the more you just sit and let it happen, I think the more they figure, ‘well, they’re okay with that,'” she says.

The Erie district did receive a modicum of relief in the state budget that recently passed, including a $3.4 million boost in basic education funds, and a one-time $4 million dollar emergency supplement.

But the systemic issues will persist, and Erie’s finances are slated to be in the same straits by the end of the school year.

And entire situation begs a larger question:

Would Erie’s crisis even be happening if it was a majority white district?

Erie, and many other urban districts with a majority of students of color, would see a windfall if state leaders chose to implement the state’s new student-weighted funding formula more aggressively. But they haven’t.

“I don’t think so, but then I just question,” says Dominique Booker, a student at Strong Vincent High School in Erie City. “I really don’t know. It’s a really hard question because you look … and they have more money, more stuff, but I don’t want to think that way.”

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PHOTOS: Muslim Hajj Pilgrimage Reaches Its Pinnacle

Muslim pilgrims join one of the hajj rituals on Mount Arafat near Mecca early on Sunday. Ahmad Gharabli /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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More than a million Muslims have embarked on the yearly Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, after last year’s holy event was marred by a deadly stampede that killed hundreds and stoked tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The sacred Muslim pilgrimage takes place over five days — and on Sunday, it reached its climax, as NPR’s Alice Fordham tells our Newscast unit. “Beginning at dawn, the masses congregated to pray on the mountain where they believe the Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon,” Alice reports.

Prayer on this mountain, called Mount Arafat and located 12 miles east of Mecca, “is believed to offer the best change of erasing past sins and starting anew,” as The Associated Press explains. This day “is the one time during the hajj when roughly all pilgrims are in the same place at the same time,” the wire service adds, and the pilgrims hail from more than 160 countries.

Muslim pilgrims pray on a rocky hill known as Mount Arafat. Nariman El-Mofty/AP hide caption

toggle caption Nariman El-Mofty/AP

“All Muslims on Earth wish they could have been here today. Thanks to Allah for enabling me to be here,” Egyptian pilgrim Mahmoud Awny told the AP.

The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace, is a religious obligation in Islam. Able-bodied Muslims must do it at least once in their lives, and it’s one of five central pillars of the religion. The spiritual experience is also intensely physical.

Muslim pilgrims make their way to Mount Arafat during the annual hajj pilgrimage. Nariman El-Mofty/AP hide caption

toggle caption Nariman El-Mofty/AP

The Hajj is taking place amid increased security after last year’s stampede. “The numbers here are in dispute, but as many as 2,600 pilgrims died when they were trapped in the crush of a crowd on a very narrow street,” as Morning Edition reported. “Saudi Arabia, which manages the hajj, investigated how that could have happened, but it’s not released results, which has infuriated Iran, which lost hundreds of citizens.”

Muslim pilgrims arrive at Mount Arafat where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have given his final sermon. Ahmad Gharbali/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ahmad Gharbali/AFP/Getty Images

Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, actually banned its citizens from participating in this year’s pilgrimage.

“The issue of safety of pilgrims goes to the heart of the Saudi government’s legitimacy,” as Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival, tells Morning Edition. He says that Iran’s assertions that Saudi Arabia was not able to secure the pilgrimage and then did not properly care for the victims is meant to put pressure on the Kingdom.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims pray outside Namira Mosque in Arafat, on the second and most significant day of the annual hajj pilgrimage. Nariman El-Mofty/AP hide caption

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The Saudi government has “introduced new safety measures for this year’s hajj, including electronic wristbands for pilgrims and more surveillance cameras and other technology for improved crowd control,” as The Wall Street Journal reports.

Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposite sides of the ongoing war in Yemen. “And Saudi Arabia’s chief cleric recently said Iranians were not Muslims,” as Alice reports. “That cleric usually preaches a sermon on the mountain, but this year he did not, citing ill health.”

According to the BBC, Iran has endorsed “an alternative event on Saturday at the holy city of Karbala in Iraq.”

The political backdrop likely matters little to the pilgrims who have waited their whole lives to participate in the holy event, however. “It’s marvelous,” Egyptian pilgrim Louza told the BBC. “I’m here closer to God. It’s an indescribable feeling.”

An Indonesian father carries his daughter through the crowd after reaching the top of a rocky hill known as Mount Arafat. Nariman El-Mofty/AP hide caption

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When Does A Friendship Become An Affair?

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars take on two questions relating to affairs — emotional and physical. One writer is having an “emotional affair” with a married man who is trying to repair his relationship with his wife. The second comes from a woman who had an affair but wants to delay a divorce to keep health insurance.


Dear Sugar Radio | Subscribe Courtesy of WBUR hide caption

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Dear Sugars,

I have been pulled into an emotional affair with an older, married friend. He and I became close over the last two years. What I initially saw as friendship has grown into intimacy. He has a troubled marriage that’s been on rocky ground for a long time, and it has survived his infidelity. My friend and his wife have children and are trying to make their marriage work. While my intentions are not sexual, I care very deeply for my friend, and I still crave the closeness and emotional intimacy of our relationship.

Is there a way to salvage this friendship in a healthy and respectful way? Or do I need to politely bow out before I create more trouble in an already turbulent life?

Signed,

Totally In Over My Head

Steve Almond: It’s unclear to me why you are referring to this relationship as an “emotional affair” rather than a “friendship.” My suspicion is that there isn’t sexual alchemy necessarily, but there’s something that feels secret and covert and occupies a kind of emotional, intimate space more appropriate for a partner.

You know a friendship is over when you’re talking more about somebody than to them, and you know a marriage is really in trouble when your partner isn’t the person with whom you have the deepest, most intimate conversations. You are in a relationship with this guy that occupies the emotional energy and attention that should be going toward him healing his relationship with his wife, which is what he says he wants to do. My hunch is that your hunch is that you need to step back from this friendship until he figures out whether his marriage is going to be healable or not.

Cheryl Strayed: I think you know the answer, TIOMH. You don’t sign a letter “Totally In Over My Head” unless you’re totally in over your head. You’re in a relationship that doesn’t feel right to you, and so, you need to bow out. We all crave closeness and emotional intimacy, and you can find that in a relationship that feels right. So you need to let this one go.


Subscribe to Dear Sugar Radio:
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Follow the Sugars on Twitter @dearsugarradio. Jennie Baker Photography/Courtesy of WBUR hide caption

toggle caption Jennie Baker Photography/Courtesy of WBUR

Dear Sugars,

I have an agonizingly American dilemma. After I had an ugly and protracted affair, my husband decided that our marriage wasn’t tenable anymore. We’ve been together for eight years and married for two, but for the past four months, we’ve been living separately. Despite my many pleas to reconcile, I’ve finally begun to accept that my husband no longer views me as his life partner, for reasons that are extremely valid. He has drawn up very equitable divorce papers and has displayed a lot of patience about me wanting to take some time to sign them.

I’m currently employed at a prestigious publication as a freelancer; I’ve been working for them for more than a year, but I don’t yet have employee benefits — most pressingly, health insurance. Though I’ve gotten some vague promises that I am “next in line” for a staff position, there’s no indication of when a move in that direction might happen.

I’m currently reliant on my estranged husband’s health insurance to control an intense anxiety disorder — and ironically enough, my distraught feelings about our split. While I’m not ready to give up on him, I understand that he no longer wishes to be married to me, and I want to set him free to pursue someone who can be more faithful to him and can appreciate him fully.

On the other hand, divorcing him will mean losing my health insurance, and I don’t want to be saddled with crippling financial burdens in order to maintain my precarious mental health. Is it moral to delay the divorce process until I can secure employee benefits? Should I be looking for another job, even though the stability of a job I love is one of the few bright spots in my life right now? Help!

Yours truly,

Un-spoused and Uncovered

Cheryl: It is moral for you to delay your divorce to keep your health insurance benefits. But to me, that’s not the question — it is, does your husband want to do this? It might be a good idea to get really specific about what amount of time would allow you to figure out this health insurance situation. You know, the sad thing about a divorce is that at the end of the day, it really is a business negotiation. These health insurance questions are really common, sadly, in this society where we don’t all have access to health insurance. And so, I think it’s a reasonable claim to ask him to delay the divorce.

Steve: I think the larger crisis that’s underneath all this is that your life is in chaos right now. And it feels deeply disrupted by the end of the marriage, by your feelings of responsibility, by your desire to be back with this person, and not incidentally, by your life as a freelancer. So in asking him, you need to be sure you’re not further casting yourself into the role of somebody who’s living a provisional, disrupted life. Because it sounds like that anxiety disorder you speak of is exacerbated by this feeling that you don’t really have a stable base at home or at work.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear from writers dealing with separation from significant others and conflict over pets.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugarradio@gmail.com and it may be answered on a future episode.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.

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Clinton Felt 'Overheated,' Left Early From Sept. 11 Commemoration

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton felt “overheated” during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and left after an hour and 30 minutes, according to a campaign spokesman.

“During the ceremony, she felt overheated so departed to go to her daughter’s apartment, and is feeling much better,” spokesman Nick Merrill said in a statement.

The ceremony at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza at the World Trade Center site marked the 15th anniversary of the attacks. Merrill said that Clinton attended “to pay her respects and greet some of the families of the fallen.”

She departed suddenly, as NPR’s Tamara Keith tells our Newscast unit. “Her traveling press corps was not taken with her and didn’t know her whereabouts for quite some time,” she says.

Tamara adds: “This comes less than a week after Clinton had a coughing fit at a rally in Cleveland. She said she was suffering from seasonal allergies.”

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature was 79 degrees with 54 percent humidity at 9:51 a.m. in Manhattan.

Donald Trump also attended the commemoration.

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LIVE: Ceremony Marks 15 Years Since Sept. 11

American flags are placed on the south pool of the National September 11 Memorial on Saturday in New York. Mary Altaffer/AP hide caption

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The name of each of the nearly 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks are being read at a ceremony at the Sept. 11 memorial plaza, at the World Trade Center site in New York City. This marks the 15th anniversary of the attacks.

Family members are coming forward to name and honor their relatives who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on Flight 93. The event is also commemorating the victims of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

You can watch the event live here:

A commemoration ceremony was also held Sunday morning at the Pentagon, where President Obama spoke.

Watch his remarks here:

“We renew the love and faith that binds us together as one American family.” —@POTUS on 9/11 #NeverForget https://t.co/8n4g9QzTfX

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) September 11, 2016

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Momentum Grows Against Bullfighting In Spain, As Thousands Rally

People listen to speeches during a protest against bullfighting in Madrid on Saturday. The placard reads in Spanish: “Torture is neither art nor culture.” Francisco Seco/AP hide caption

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Thousands gathered on the streets of Madrid to protest bullfighting, chanting that it is “torture — not art or culture!”

This demonstration comes amid growing momentum in Spain against the centuries-old tradition, as reporter Lauren Frayer tells our Newscast unit. It was organized by Pacma, an animal rights political party — and the group says it was “the biggest anti-bullfighting protest to date,” as Reuters reports.

Supporters of bullfighting consider it an inexorable part of Spanish culture — and activist Jorge Rodriguez tells Frayer that it’s hard to change people’s minds.

“Our traditions are linked to our history — to the weather, to the culture, to the people. It’s a lot more than hurting animals for the sake of hurting animals. It’s rooted — and that’s why it’s so difficult to get rid of it,” Rodriguez says.

Thousands of people gather at Puerta del Sol as they demonstrate against bullfighting in Madrid on Saturday. Curto de la Torre/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Curto de la Torre/AFP/Getty Images

“Bulls feel and they suffer,” demonstrator Chelo Martin Pozo tells The Guardian. “Bullfights are a national shame and if they represent me, then I am not Spanish.”

Frayer says a graphic viral video has energized the movement against the practice. “Last month, animal rights activists [from Pacma] went undercover to film a medieval festival south of Madrid, where a baby bull was stabbed and killed in the bull ring by amateurs,” she reports. “Video of the scene with children cheering went viral — with 20 million views in 24 hours. Many Spaniards were outraged that such torture is legal here.”

There have been signs of change recently. This week, “a popular festival that used to involve spearing bulls as they run through the streets will go on — but without the bulls being killed. That part has been banned,” Frayer reports.

According to the Associated Press, “at least 17 Spanish cities and towns have cut municipal funding for bullfights and bull runs, or passed legislation condemning or banning it since the new leftist party Podemos won its first seats in local and regional elections a year ago.” The Catalonia region banned bullfighting altogether in 2011, as NPR reported.

Fewer and fewer Spaniards support the pastime. “An Ipsos Mori poll from January, carried out for animal welfare organisation World Animal Protection, found that only 19 percent of adults in Spain supported bullfighting, while 58 percent opposed it,” as Reuters reports.

Bullfighting does have powerful supporters, including Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as the BBC reports. It adds that fans, which are known as “aficionados” have also recently rallied in favor of the tradition.

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On A Rural Taiwanese Island, Modern China Beckons

Skyscrapers of the Mainland Chinese city of Xiamen is seen in the distance from a beach on Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. Rob Schmitz/NPR hide caption

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Plastic water bottles, brown medicine vials, and Styrofoam coffee cups wash up on the beaches of Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. This is the daily tide of garbage from the world’s most populous nation, just one mile across the channel.

But it wasn’t always garbage that came floating across from mainland China. Communist troops from China’s Red Army stormed this beach in 1949. Thousands of Chinese soldiers who tried to take this island from Taiwan were massacred.

“You see that well? It’s full of their bodies,” says Song Li Fa, a former Taiwanese soldier who drives his beat-up van through fields of corn and ancient water wells beyond the beach.

Song stops the van with a clicking of a parking brake, steps out of his car, and walks through the corn, his rugby-player frame towering above the lush rows.

“See all these plastic bottles the farmers mounted on stakes?” he asks, pointing his finger all around him. “Those are places the farmers don’t plow because there are dead Chinese soldiers buried underneath.”

A rod with a bottle marks one of nearly a hundred sites where the bodies of thousands of Chinese soldiers are buried. Communist soldiers made an unsuccessful attempt at taking over the island in 1949. Rob Schmitz/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Rob Schmitz/NPR

More than 100 plastic tombstones rise above the corn in the distance.

“We were willing to leave their bones and not disturb them,” he says. “I think how you treat others is important. Be inclusive. Be forgiving. Be tolerant. Drop the hatred.”

Kinmen Island is heeding Song’s message. Decades after a bloody battle made the island, also known by its historical name Quemoy, the frontline of a long-standing cold war between Taiwan and China, relations are thawing. Its population of 130,000 belongs to Taiwan, but its island motherland is 120 miles away, and the steel and glass towers crowding mainland China’s city of Xiamen beckon to residents of a largely rural island.

A steady flow of Chinese

At Kinmen’s only harbor, hundreds of Chinese tourists disembark a ferry from the mainland, looking for an escape from the big city in the island’s rolling hills, vast beaches, and ancient villages.

“I’d like them to live here, too,” says Kinmen Deputy Magistrate Wu Cheng Dian, the island’s second-in-command. “I hope someday they can buy property here and their children could come to school here.”

Kinmen Island Deputy Magistrate Wu Cheng Dian hopes to open his island to more business from Mainland China. He’d like to build a bridge to the mainland and allow Mainland Chinese to buy property on Kinmen. Taiwan’s national government does not agree. Rob Schmitz/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Rob Schmitz/NPR

He says he’d like to see the island’s population reach 300,000, more than doubling the current number.

Taiwanese laws make it nearly impossible for mainland Chinese to own land on Kinmen Island. But Wu wants to change that. He thinks China’s government should also be able to buy property here, too.

He supports a bridge from Kinmen to the mainland, a cruise ship terminal for Chinese ships, and he wants to allow mainland Chinese to use their own currency on the island.

Taiwan’s national government has rejected all of these proposals.

“We hope both governments can overcome their problems and give Kinmen a chance to grow,” Wu says. “Let’s all take a deep breath. We can develop so fast if they would just let us.”

Divided Opinions

But Deputy Magistrate Wu’s constituents are conflicted.

At a bohemian restaurant inside the island’s biggest town, Jincheng, ukulele instructor Xu Yi Teng, 26, wants to keep the mainland at more than an arm’s length.

“There are so many Chinese people, and many of them are wealthy,” says Xu with a look of worry. “If they come and buy as many houses as they want, Kinmen’s local culture will be ruined.”

Across the island in the ancient village of Shanwai, local culture is on display each morning as residents burn incense and fake money at a neighborhood Buddhist temple. Yang Yunu says she’s not scared at all about an invasion of wealthy Chinese.

“The more people, the more money they bring,” Yang says matter-of-factly. “I’m not worried about losing our traditional culture. We will influence them, they will influence us. It’s all good.”

But many islanders’ opinions about the mainland are more nuanced.

“We’re conflicted between belonging to Taiwan’s free, democratic system, and the desire to make money,” says Li You Zhong, a popular local television host on the island. “I think one thing we can agree on is that peace is priceless.

Propaganda wars

Li speaks from experience. He lived through an era when Kinmen and the mainland fired bombshells filled with propaganda leaflets at each other every — on the evenings of the odd days of the calendar — from 1960 to 1978.

On his first day of middle school, Li remembers, a classmate was killed by one. “They sounded like, ‘Weeeeeeeee — Boom!'” Li screams. “They killed many people. We couldn’t go to the beach because they were filled with landmines. We were always scared and worried about the future.”

Song Li Fa stands in front of a three-story speaker system that blasts Taiwanese songs and propaganda towards Mainland China one mile away. Rob Schmitz/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Rob Schmitz/NPR

A relic from that bygone era stands proud on the island’s western coast: a three-story tall speaker system that blasts Taiwanese songs and propaganda towards the mainland at ear-piercing decibels. A voice proclaims, “Stay healthy and long live democracy!” in Mandarin before launching into a popular ballad from the 1970s.

Below, Song Li Fa, the burly man who gave a tour of the mass grave of Chinese soldiers, stands and smiles. The song reminds him of when he was a soldier decades ago.

“Back then, my mission was to destroy the mainland,” says Song. “When I retired, both sides had begun to make up. Now our economies are booming on both sides, but Kinmen’s economy still isn’t very good. Taiwan still treats us as a frontline in a battle.”

But mainland China, says Song, doesn’t see Kinmen as an enemy at all. Song pauses to ask a question: “Why can’t we put the people’s interest first?”

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