An event that would be seen as routine in most other circumstances; a democratically elected foreign leader giving a speech in a short visit to the United States, has sparked a furore amongst governments and internet users alike. The element that makes this recent incident remarkable is that it is the first time the president of Taiwan has spoken publicly in the US in 15 years. On a stopover on her trip Paraguay President Tsai Ing-wen has courted controversy as she spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Los Angeles. Reuters reports that she paid tribute to President Reagan’s legacy of improving Taiwanese-US relations while quoting him in reference to Taiwan’s current situation saying, “Everything was negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future.” Tsai’s government does not recognise Taiwan as a part of China and her speech promoted democratic values. Her words were also defiant in the face of China’s insistence that Taiwan is a province of the mainland saying that “We only need to be firm so that no one can obliterate Taiwan’s existence.”
Meanwhile this speech has prompted a predictable response from Beijing who has officially protested to the US for allowing the speech and remain “firmly opposed” to countries with diplomatic ties with China to allow this sort of arrangement in transit travel. However, perhaps more surprisingly the power of Chinese citizens online, or netizens, has again shown itself as a force for censure to be reckoned with. According to Reuters, Tsai stopped at a Taiwanese chain called 85C Bakery Cafe in Los Angeles which has branches in Taiwan, the US, Australia, Hong Kong, and mainland China. In the backlash that has followed the visit, 85C Bakery Cafe has faced extensive online condemnation from Chinese netizens which forced the company to declare its “firm support for ‘one China'” in a statement. This is not the first incident of the power of internet over politics, but it does represent a dilemma for both the issue of Taiwan and geopolitics more broadly.
Tensions over the status of Taiwan has long been a central element of Chinese foreign policy as a difficult history has prompted China to pay especially close attention to the international status of the island. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China following the Chinese civil war in which the communist side was successful in overthrowing the ruling Kuomintang government and forcing them into exile in Taiwan. This gave rise to a fraught situation where there were two governments, each claiming to be “China” and declaring sovereignty over the entire country. While Taiwan continues to be known officially until this day as the Republic of China, the People’s Republic on the mainland grew steadily in international recognition, culminating in the US’s recognition in 1979. However, this conflict over the two governments’ competing positions continues today, mostly in the diplomatic sphere. Taiwan only enjoys full diplomatic relations with 18 states, one of which is Paraguay, incidentally the country President Tsai was on her way to visit. Meanwhile China’s foreign relations are predicated on a mutual recognition of the “one China” policy which views Taiwan as more of a rogue province than an independent state. While this has long been a source of tension for the residents in Taiwan, it has come to greater prominence with the election of Tsai Ing-wen and her party whose nuanced and carefully articulated position on Taiwan’s independence can be boiled down to the island representing a separate independent entity, with a territory consisting of Taiwan and surrounding islands. In response, China has grown increasingly wary of recognition for Taiwan and has continued to insist on its one China policy.
Most notable about the recent events however has not been the official response from the government, which has remained consistent in its rejection of Taiwanese independence and implicit threat of forcible reunification, but the role that the Chinese citizenry has played in reinforcing this position. The internet has become a tool used like never before in politics and much scholarly and media attention has been given to its role in the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit decision. However, it has also been a remarkably successful method to apply pressure over the issue of Taiwan and businesses have borne much of the brunt of the netizens ire. The above mentioned 85C Bakery Cafe is the latest business forced to reaffirm its commitment to the one China model after a barrage of online criticism. Comments ranged from the simple “Get out of mainland China!” to the more colourful “85C is a ‘Taiwan independence’ two-faced company. We mainland Chinese should boycott this kind of garbage company.” These comments had an enormous impact on its bottom line. Bloomberg has reported that shares in Gourmet Master Co, the parent company, had fallen 7.5% as of the 16th of August removing USD$120 million US off its market value. As the mainland remains the company’s biggest market, they had little choice but to make a political statement denouncing Taiwanese independence. This combination of direct consumer and market backlash has already claimed a number of other businesses in recent times. US clothing brand Gap was forced to apologise for retailing a t-shirt with a map of China on it which did not include Taiwan after a strong response on Weibo, China’s main social media platform. Even more significantly, though more through government effort, international airlines were given a July 25th deadline to change their online flight listings to remove references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate from China. This demand came from the Civil Aviation Administration of China and insisted that Taiwan must be referred to as “Chinese Taiwan” or “Taiwan: province/region of China”, as stated on the Conversation. Since the demand, many airlines have had little choice but to concede ground and their websites now simply list “Taipei” with no country of origin.
This combination of state declarations and online pressure from individual netizens has proven to be the next frontier in the dispute over Taiwan. Businesses seem unwittingly caught in the middle of this delicate political situation and have found themselves having little option but to take at least a token stance on Taiwan’s independence. It highlights a shift away from diplomacy conducted state to state, previously a key preoccupation for China and Taiwan, and towards a model of online campaigns against multinational businesses which have become key actors. While this is certainly proving effective for China’s preferred position, it is concerning in that it allows no reasoned response or dialogue. If Taiwan and China stand a chance for peaceful resolution of old grievances the key is effective communication. Tsai’s government has already condemned these “improper tactics that disrupt market order and the freedom of speech,” per Reuters. Indeed, the virtual court of public opinion seems more likely to escalate tensions than smooth them over and the jury seems heavily stacked in China’s favour.