#LetTaiwanHelp: What Taiwan’s Hashtag Diplomacy Is About

#LetTaiwanHelp: What Taiwan’s Hashtag Diplomacy Is About
Photo Credit: 熊讚Bravo

What you need to know

#LetTaiwanHelp was orchestrated to promote a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate, but its origins are much deeper.

The hashtag #LetTaiwanHelp is gaining momentum on Twitter. On April 27, the U.S. Senate and House Foreign Relations Subcommittees on Asia initiated the hashtag to advocate for Taiwan’s inclusion in the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA), with more than sixty lawmakers tweeting with it in a day. On the same day, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China also launched a global campaign to call on the World Health Organization (WHO) to invite Taiwan to the WHA. Leaders of countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan, like the Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, also tweeted with the hashtag.

Though the campaign makes reference to Taiwan’s world-leading Covid-19 response, #LetTaiwanHelp was orchestrated to promote a recent bill introduced by Senators Ed Markey and Jim Inhofe, co-chairs of the Senate Taiwan Caucus. The bill directs the Secretary of State to “develop a strategy to assist Taiwan in obtaining observer status at the WHA.” The Twitter campaign also serves to raise awareness of the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive diplomacy and rally support for Taiwan’s participation in the 74th WHA, which is due to take place virtually between May 24 and June 1 this year.

From Taiwan Can Help to Let Taiwan Help

This is not the first time that hashtags have been deployed to push for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHA. In the earlier stages of the pandemic, #TaiwanCanHelp was used to urge the WHO to invite Taiwan to the 2020 conference. Taiwan’s government incorporated the hashtag on marketing material and press releases, turning #TaiwanCanHelp into a slogan for broadening Taiwan’s international space.

The #TaiwanCanHelp movement picked up steam when Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, accused Taiwan of directing racist attacks at him. This accusation came a few weeks after Bruce Aylward, an assistant director-general of the WHO, abruptly ended an interview with Radio Television Hong Kong when asked about Taiwan’s membership in the organization.

The double injury of the initial exclusion from the WHO, and then perceived hostility from WHO leadership, coalesced when Taiwanese YouTuber, Ray Du, and Watchout co-founder, Zuyi Lin, initiated a crowdfunding campaign to place a full-page ad in The New York Times to promote #TaiwanCanHelp. The campaign raised over NT$19 million, almost five times its original goal, within a few hours. An interactive website, with the aptly chosen domain name “taiwancanhelp.us,” was launched to share Taiwan’s Covid-19 story.

The use of Taiwan’s Covid-19 response in service to diplomatic and political ends would continue for the next several months. In November 2020, the Taiwan representative office in Geneva also installed a colorful #TaiwanCanHelp structure in the square of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, which is located in front of the United Nations’s European headquarters.

#TaiwanIsHelping: Combining #TaiwanCanHelp with Action

When Taiwan’s global PPE donation campaigns were underway, Taiwan’s government adopted #TaiwanIsHelping along with the #TaiwanCanHelp hashtag. Having been excluded from the WHA once again (during a global pandemic no less), however, the #TaiwanIsHelping hashtag offers a point to rally around. The concurrent usage of #TaiwanCanHelp and #TaiwanIsHelping shapes a narrative that Taiwan is a force for good in the world. Keen followers of U.S.-Taiwan relations would notice that these phrases have been used with increasing frequency by U.S. officials.

Hence, both #TaiwanCanHelp and #TaiwanIsHelping have demonstrated some success as vehicles for Taiwan’s soft power. Though they have yet to achieve their end goal of putting Taiwan in the WHA, both have successfully helped Taiwan gain favorable attention globally. Along with Taiwan’s exemplary response to the pandemic, diplomatic initiatives promulgated by these hashtags gave foreign countries the basis and courage to support Taiwan when it previously would have been hesitant to do so.

The main innovation with the latest meme has been its origins. Introduced by U.S. representatives rather than the Taiwanese populace this time around, #LetTaiwanHelp became the newest addition to the list of “Taiwan Can Help” hashtags. Though the uptake has been swift, it remains to be seen how effective it will be at convincing the WHO to let Taiwan join the upcoming WHA.

The online movement has been supported by the traditional channels of Taiwan-support in the United States. In a statement to The News Lens International on #LetTaiwanHelp, President of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), Dr. Minze Chien, said, “Health is a fundamental human right. As such, it is regrettable that Taiwan has been excluded from participating in one of the most important health dialogues time and again, ironically by an organization that promotes ‘Health for All.’ Today, we are delighted to see so many parliamentarians and leaders stand in solidarity with Taiwan with #LetTaiwanHelp. With its extraordinary response to the pandemic and its medical expertise, Taiwan definitely has something to contribute to world health.”

Chien adds, however, that these movements should persist even after the pandemic.

“But let us not end #TaiwanCanHelp and #LetTaiwanHelp with the pandemic. They should serve as nothing less than an impetus for promoting Taiwan’s eventual integration into the international community, which will undoubtedly serve the interests of all humankind.”

The Internet as a Tool for Political Movements

Taiwan’s successful use of social media to broaden its international space has deeper implications. Free of the restrictions of diplomatic norms, social media platforms like Twitter allow for publicity campaigns to get off the ground, allowing citizens of smaller countries a stage to have their message heard internationally.

Though social media, controlled by private companies, is far from a free and open forum, it has been taken up as a tool by many political activists. Most recently in Asia, the Milk Tea Alliance has been a largely online based movement, with activists taking to Twitter and other tools in search of an international space for the expression of political concerns, particularly salient during a pandemic that makes in-person organizing more burdensome. This likely won’t be the last time we’ll see online diplomacy make an impact.

READ NEXT: The Story Behind the 'Taiwan Can Help' Ad on New York Times

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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