OPINION: The Strangest China-Taiwan Divide of All Is a Media Creation

OPINION: The Strangest China-Taiwan Divide of All Is a Media Creation
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

China is adept at feeding a media narrative that casts Taiwan as a cause of friction rather than a blameless victim of aggression from across the Strait.

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On Sept. 26, 2017, the new premier of Taiwan's government, William Lai (賴清德), remarked during a question-and-answer session with the legislature that his policy of “showing an affinity toward China while loving Taiwan” does not conflict with President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) policy of maintaining the “status quo.”

Lai re-affirmed his support for Taiwan independence and said that Taiwan and China are independent of each other, with Taiwan being an independent sovereign state carrying the designation the Republic of China.

These statements caused a stir in the media and among some China watchers, driven in part by the South China Morning Post's highly erroneous report that Lai was "...the first Taiwanese premier to openly acknowledge his pro-independence status." Lai was far from the first premier to make such statements while in office, but the popular China watching site SupChina ran with the story, titled "Tensions with Taiwan just got a whole lot worse," saying:

“What next? As Reuters points out, Beijing has already suspended a regular dialogue mechanism with Taipei established under the previous, China-friendly government in Taiwan and reduced the numbers of mainland tourists visiting Taiwan. We can expect further punishment of some kind, probably economic.”

Nothing, of course, happened. No "punishment" came from China as a result of Premier Lai's boilerplate affirmation of the longstanding Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) position, now entering its third decade of life. Today everyone has forgotten this episode.

This little tale neatly encapsulates the conventional news cycle for Taiwan-related events:

  1. Something happens involving Taiwan.
  2. The media places the occurrence in the context of the Taiwan-China sovereignty mess, claims tensions are heightened, and inflates the situation, often with reports that are studded with errors and misunderstandings.
  3. China watchers, whose frameworks for understanding Taiwan dominate the media and commentary, write excited prose claiming worsening tensions, reaffirming conventional narratives, and sounding stentorian warnings.
  4. Nothing happens, the event is forgotten, and the media never revisits it. Wash, rinse, and repeat, ad nauseam.

Meanwhile, on the Taiwan side, everyone is kicking back and downing margaritas. We don't look at events using the conventional interpretive frameworks that focus on promoting China as a serious participant in the international system and marginalizing Taiwan. We don't have to sell papers or drive clicks to our websites. And we've seen this happen a hundred times before.

In the conventional paradigm the goal is to present relations between the U.S. and China in a great power "stability" system under which “engagement” with China will create a China that participates in international economic and political systems as a full and compliant partner. This framework denies that China is interested in subverting, overthrowing, converting, or destroying the international order and views Taiwan as a provocative irritant that upsets the smooth ordering of international relations. Thus, it is a necessity to the functioning of this ideological framework that tensions are due to the actions of Taiwan, not China.

The classic example of this cycle was the phone call between presidents Tsai of Taiwan and Trump of the United States. The call led to a tsunami of commentary – everyone, even non-experts, felt qualified to comment, because the despised Trump was involved. Thus Rachel Maddow absurdly claimed that "this is how wars start", while noted Asia experts Trevor Noah and Charles Krauthammer both claimed that U.S. policy says Taiwan is part of China – it actually says Taiwan's status remains undecided.

Meanwhile, on the Taiwan side, everyone is kicking back and downing margaritas.

More importantly, there was an avalanche of entirely negative commentary from China watchers using the establishment framework to interpret events. Taking its cue from the commentators, when the media presented an “opposing” view, it presented “China hawks.” Few experts on Taiwan, let alone Taiwan-based voices, were permitted to speak, except in carefully caged local color moments.

Remember that phone call? After all the smoke cleared, what happened?

Nothing, of course.

Again and again, this startling lack of outcome remains unreported in the international media. The reigning paradigm remains dominant because the media passes over its failures in silence.

The dominance of the conventional great power framework has pernicious effects on Taiwan. Because tensions can never be assigned to China’s desire to annex Taiwan, Taiwan has to be the cause of all tensions. Yet every article that assigns tensions to Taiwan’s actions is a victory for Beijing, since one of its media goals is to transfer tensions from the Beijing-Washington and Beijing-Taipei relationships to the Washington-Taipei relationship. If you’re sitting in Washington saying to yourself: “That Taiwan &^%$#!”, then you’re doing it wrong.

This leaves Taiwan the province of “China hawks” who do not buy the establishment China framework, reducing Taiwan’s ability to obtain support from progressives and liberals. In the U.S., Taiwan, while it actually has strong bipartisan support in Congress as the recent Taiwan Travel Act shows, is generally perceived as a Republican issue. Sadly, from observers in the center and left, Taiwan often receives only regretful handwringing, neatly encapsulated by this tweet from Nicolas Kristof:

The left’s colossal failure to embrace Taiwan is proverbial among progressive Taiwan watchers.

The conventional framework has also given the entirely fictional 1992 Consensus a spurious yet important status in the international media. Again and again, commentators write about the “1992 Consensus” under which Beijing and Taipei agreed to One China, but with differing interpretations. It has been known for years that Beijing has never agreed to the “two interpretations” codicil and indeed last year instructed its own media never to report that.

tsai_&_xi-1
photo credit: Reuters/達志影像
The myth of a 1992 Consensus continues to rampage through cross-Strait politics.

The zombie “two interpretations” claim exists in the conventional discourse to make Taiwan look unreasonable. The actual choice Beijing is giving is twofold: submit, or die. But the presentation of the “two interpretations” makes it appear as if Taiwan has an out, a third alternative. Taiwan could accept the fictional 1992 Consensus and stop provoking China by being so obdurate. This enables observers to look "reasonable" and "balanced" and "centrist" (look, both sides are at fault!) when in fact they are writing fiction.

Last month many pixels were slain to breathlessly report that China was offering 31 measures to lure Taiwanese to China to work. The 31 measures weren’t aimed at Taiwanese, who are already intelligently cynical about China’s “offerings”. Rather, they had two audiences.

The first audience was the media and the gaggle of China explainers, who will plug it into the establishment framework and present China as “reasonable” and “pragmatic” and offering “olive branches.” Because in the media, all China-Taiwan events can only be about the sovereignty issue, commentators never experience Chinese actions as aimed at themselves. China has thus become adept at using this group to soften its belligerent stances and make it appear that successful engagement, like fusion power, is always just around the corner.

The second audience is the people of China. Beijing knows that its expansionist claims will bring it into war over Taiwan sooner or later. Its fraudulent magnanimity is there to convince its own people that the leadership did everything it could, but Taiwan’s irrational stubbornness has made an invasion inevitable. It also helps build resentment of Taiwan for its “special privileges” among those who otherwise might not have had any opinion about Taiwan at all.

The last few years, as China’s rise makes it more difficult to mask its warlike intentions, have seen a shift in the general view of the engagement paradigm. Increasingly, it is being questioned as a failure. The truth is, it has always been a failure. Xi’s elevation to Supreme Leader has simply exhumed this paradigm’s corpse, mutilated it, and put a stake through its head.

Engagement has had only two major effects: it has permitted China to rise unchallenged, with no punishment for its thefts of technologies, aggressive expansion in the South China Sea and elsewhere, its growing global environmental destructiveness, and the wholly unnecessary expansion of its military machine.

Its other major effect? The nurturing of a whole class of China commentators, brokers, consultants, explainers and media workers who have received wealth, status, and access by promoting this broken paradigm.

That too, the media has passed over in silence.

Read next: OPINION: Taiwan Lost the Strait Aviation Dispute

Editor: TNL Staff

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