OPINION: Exploiting Cross-Strait Tensions for Fun and Profit

Why you need to know

Michael Turton argues that international media's crass exploitation of cross-Strait tensions plays right into Beijing's hands.

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Knowing that sex sells, the international media routinely sexes up stories about Taiwan by exploiting the idea of (constantly rising) tensions to drive clicks.

Central to this apparatus is the ideological construct that China-Taiwan relations are a site of tensions driven by Taiwan's actions, to which China reacts without any agency of its own, as if its reactions are involuntary reflexes rather than policy choices. For example, earlier this month Associated Press (AP) ran a story on phone scammers from Taiwan leagued with Chinese criminal gangs, who operate in many countries, and their efforts to con Chinese citizens.

Tension-inflating prose sells, while tension-deflating facts do not.

AP offered: "Shortly before Tsai took office, Beijing began demanding that governments of countries like Kenya, Malaysia and Spain that arrest phone and computer fraud suspects send them to China, where they face almost certain conviction and up to life in prison." This construction suggests (though does not openly state) that Beijing's demands are related to Taiwan's pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), taking office in May of 2016.

To make plausible the idea that the demand for scammers is somehow related to Tsai, AP simply omits the truth: China formally demanded the Kenya scammers in January of 2015, well over a year before Tsai took office, not "shortly." The Chinese authorities did this not because of the cross-Strait sovereignty crisis, but because the justice authorities under the previous Administration of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) had a habit of releasing or lightly sentencing alleged scammers once they were back on Taiwan soil, as China complained repeatedly. Though the demand for scammers was completely unrelated to the Tsai presidency, AP nevertheless coyly linked the two.

The media does this because tension-inflating prose sells, while tension-deflating facts do not. Tensions between China and Taiwan present themselves as easily grasped binaries that invite readers to imagine they understand things and are participating vicariously in the great events of the age. Facts, alas, demonstrate to the reader that events are complex and not readily accessible, might even be a bit dull, and that the reader is an ignorant outsider. Who wants that?

AP's misrepresentation of the fact that China was responding to the previous pro-China administration's policy highlights one of the double standards that shapes these media presentations of Taiwan: the actions of pro-China types in Taiwan can never be a source of tension, only the actions of the pro-Taiwan side.

Examples of sexing up events via omission abound. Several months ago the BBC ran the headline: "Taiwan announces submarine building ahead of Trump-Xi summit". The text noted: "Taiwan has announced plans for eight new submarines, a senior Taiwanese navy official confirmed on Wednesday," adding, "The announcement comes the day before Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in Florida." The text links the announcement timing to the Xi-Trump meeting and simply omits the fact that the announcement repeated one made by President Tsai a couple of weeks before, about a program that had been in the news for months, and whose budget had been passed five months earlier. It omitted all that prosaic reality just to generate a little tension to titillate the reader.

The BBC even quoted the president warning of a need to build submarines, which she had said when she announced their construction two weeks before! The BBC writer appeared to know that the submarines were old news, but evidently decided that the false context of the Trump-Xi meeting was sexier.

When there are no facts to omit, the wording will do. Consider this report by Reuters of the threat of an invasion by a Chinese official: "A threat by a senior Chinese diplomat to invade Taiwan the instant any U.S. warship visits the self-ruled island has sparked a war of words, with Taipei accusing Beijing of failing to understand what democracy means." Terms like spar and war of words inflate tensions rather than explain them. Taiwan had actually responded by calling for peace. It is not a "war" when one side is refusing to fight.

The idea of ever-worsening tension is also supported by the media habit of never reporting when nothing happens.

Similarly, the AP writer added tensions to its original report of Tsai's National Day speech last year (now amended). Originally it began: "Taiwan's independence-leaning government will defend the self-governing island's freedoms and democratic system amid heightened tensions with rival China, President Tsai Ing-wen said Tuesday." It later amended that to: "Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Tuesday said her government will defend the self-governing island's freedoms and democratic system amid heightened tensions with rival China, and renewed calls for dialogue that Beijing suspended more than a year ago."

The second version moves "heightened tensions" out of the realm of things Tsai said, and now makes it a report of the writer. Further, it adds her call for peaceful talks, which the original appeared to omit to make her seem more bellicose and defiant.

The idea of ever-worsening tension is also supported by the media habit of never reporting when nothing happens, even though media workers had predicted doom and gloom. In August of 2016, AP reported that: "In July, Beijing's top Taiwan policy adviser predicted a 'severe' effect on relations after the island's navy misfired a supersonic antiship missile." The media did not report that nothing happened as a result of that mishap, in which a Taiwanese fisherman was killed.

In July of 2016, Taiwan tested missiles in the U.S. News organizations and commentators assured their readers beforehand that this would "irk" or "infuriate" or "raise tensions". Having brought in the clicks, the media did not bother to report that the missile test had no effect on China-Taiwan relations.

Perhaps the most common approach to exploiting tensions is by not assigning a cause to them. In media parlance events occur "amidst tensions", which may rise without any agency driving them.

These strangely causeless, mysterious tensions form the foundation of cross-Strait cosmology, sparing China opprobrium.

A few media organs have recently become bolder about identifying China as the problem.

In reality, tensions are caused by China's desire to annex Taiwan, and Taiwan's resistance to that goal. By removing China's agency from the equation, this approach spotlights Taiwan as the source of tensions. Fortunately, a few media organs have recently become bolder about identifying China as the problem.

The media also exploits tensions by its differing treatment of speakers from Taiwan and China. In innumerable reports, China voices speak without constraint, challenge, or check. When the Taiwan side is permitted to speak, it is interrogated and criticized, but often it is simply silenced.

This invites the reader to conclude that the more bellicose, alarming Chinese noises are indicative of the true state of affairs rather than boilerplate, while preventing Taiwan voices from identifying China as the source of tensions or presenting a more peaceful tone.

Beijing manipulates tensions because that enables it to shape media writing on Taiwan, displace the blame for tensions onto Taiwan, and impact U.S. policymakers, who fear Beijing's wholly manufactured "anger." The media's exploitation of cross-Strait tensions plays into Beijing's hands.

Keep in mind: each time "tensions" are mentioned in the international media, that amidst those tensions hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese are living and working in China, scores of aircraft disgorging thousands of Chinese tourists are landing serenely in Taiwan each week, and thousands of students from each country are studying on the opposite side of the Strait.

For them, "rising tensions" appear to exist only in the media.

Read next: BOOK REVIEW: The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and US Strategy in Asia

Editor: Morley J Weston

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