China is Winning the Propaganda War on Taiwan

By 美國之音合成圖片 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, two more countries broke away from the fast dwindling assortment of diplomatic allies that officially recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. The political volte-face in May by the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso in favour of closer ties with Beijing follows a long trend of diplomatic shifts that leave Taiwan increasingly isolated on the international stage. Seven decades after the territory of China split into two separate political entities—the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the nationalist Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan—only 18 countries remain in formal diplomatic relations with the ROC. Moreover, most of them are small and politically insignificant nations in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Central America. China has successfully chipped away at Africa, leaving only Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) on the continent, while Taiwan’s last European defender, the Vatican City, is also believed to be drifting closer to Beijing.

At the root of the political haemorrhaging is the One China Policy. This viewpoint, once held by both sides, though now only practically championed by the PRC, maintains that there is only one legitimate government of China. This poses a dilemma to foreign governments, forcing them to choose between the two. It is not hard to understand why relations with Taiwan are suffering. Until recently this was mostly a diplomatic tug-of-war, but amid heightened cross-strait tensions and a growing imbalance of military and economic power, an increasingly confident and assertive Beijing is taking the battle over Taiwan beyond its borders and into the corporate arena. China has swiftly and effectively started to use economic incentives and targeted “soft diplomacy” to court nations that would have previously recognised Taiwan, leaving little room for the ROC to compete. Many African nations have benefited from closer ties with China. The Asian superpower has helped to introduce sorely needed infrastructure upgrades and establish educational and technological exchanges, including scholarships for African students. However, one of the troubling consequences of China’s increased international engagement is that it appears to be successfully spreading its brand of censorship outside of its territory. To make matters worse, Western companies seem to be willingly playing along.

In January, China shut down The Marriott International hotel website inside its borders when an online questionnaire suggested Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet were separate countries. While Hong Kong and Macau are part of China they are often listed separately due to their status as special administrative regions. Tibet (an autonomous region under Chinese governmental control) and (self-ruled) Taiwan constitute two of China’s “three Ts”, a trio of taboos that along with the Tiananmen Square killings are highly politically sensitive for Beijing. China’s Cyberspace Administration said the hotel had seriously violated national laws and had—adding the signature response from the Chinese government regarding politically sensitive material—“hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”. The hotel apologised and reiterated its respect for the territorial integrity of China. China had pressurised an international hotel chain, although this form of censorship was effectively a Chinese domestic affair.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) then made the issue international in April when a letter sent to 36 foreign airlines demanded Taiwan be referred to as “Chinese Taiwan” or “Taiwan: province/region of China”. The CAAC threatened that if its demands were not met by the deadline of May 25, the Chinese government would make a record of the “company’s serious dishonesty and take disciplinary actions” as well as “take administrative penalties according to law”. This is perhaps indicative of a more confident China that expects foreign companies to adhere to its regulations even outside Chinese territory. If this is the case, China seems to have set a dangerous precedent indeed. Nevertheless, several major airlines complied; among them, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, British Airways, Air Canada and, most recently, Quantas, which have all shifted away from Taiwan. However, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, criticised China for threatening the national air carrier, while the White House denounced the move by Beijing as “Orwellian nonsense”.

Perhaps most alarming, however, was the apology issued last month by American clothing retailer Gap, after it was hit by a barrage of criticism on social media for a t-shirt sold in Canada depicting a map of China. The company was attacked for not including Taiwan, along with disputed Chinese-claimed territories in the South China Sea and a region in Arunachal Pradesh (administered by India but claimed in China as ‘South Tibet’). While the Marriott case was arguably a domestic issue that reflected already familiar political sensitivities, the Gap outrage appears symptomatic of a new trend towards more territorial assertiveness, and one that increasingly involves trampling on liberal democratic values abroad.

The Chinese Communist Party has long hoped to charm Taiwan into reunification with the Mainland, but this remains highly unlikely. According to a recent survey, the majority of Taiwanese reject unification, with 70 per cent willing to fight China in a military stand-off. A riposte by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the letters sent by the CAA cautioned that suppressing Taiwan would “widen the rift between the two sides, and make a mockery of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s statements that the ‘two sides are one family’ “.

With Beijing’s human rights crackdown in Mainland China, erosion of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, and the militarisation of disputed islands in the South China Sea, the differences between the governments are widening ever further. Earlier this year China’s Communist Party scrapped the constitutional two-term presidential limit, thereby allowing Xi Jinping to potentially rule for life. This tighter political climate on the Mainland hardly augurs well for reunification. Taiwan, a liberal democracy, outperforms the PRC on practically all economic and social indicators, with a free press, higher per capita income, higher life expectancy, and lower corruption. Taiwanese citizens enjoy freedoms that are denied to people on the  Mainland and, perhaps soon, will be denied to citizens in Hong Kong as well.

Nevertheless, China is winning the propaganda war and has so far been successful at redrawing the political map to its benefit. Now, with its pressure on foreign companies, China is tightening control still further over the geopolitical narrative, as it sees it. These bullish attempts to have Communist Party maps and Chinese law apply abroad constitute a worrying intrusion into matters of state sovereignty, a principle which China traditionally defends on issues it sees as important. Without pushback from the international community, China will continue attempting to use its diplomatic and political leverage to impose its will, even beyond its borders, and further tighten censorship on issues Beijing deems non-negotiable, such as the status of Taiwan.

Image courtesy of 美國之音合成圖片 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Colin Peebles Christensen

About Colin Peebles Christensen

Colin Peebles Christensen holds a degree in Chinese Studies from SOAS, University of London, where he focused on Asian and African politics and Mandarin. He previously lived in Shanghai and currently writes about politics, economics and lifestyle, most often with an eye on China.

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