Taiwan Needs a Counter-Propaganda Strategy

The Taiwanese need their own United Front to counter Beijing’s propaganda. But before they can do so, they need to better understand each other
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
J. Michael Cole

Anyone who has spent enough time in Taiwan should be aware of the fundamental difference that exists between the Chinese and Taiwanese societies. Young Taiwanese — those who were born in the late 1980s onwards — have no other experience of citizenship than that of living in a democracy. Granted, their identity can be shaped by the experiences of their parents and grandparents who lived under Martial Law and the Cold War, but first and foremost, theirs is the life of citizens of a liberal-democracy.

For young Chinese from the same generation, the experience is markedly different. They grew up in an authoritarian system that fosters amnesia. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t want them to know the past — or to put it better, it wants them to know a version of the past that lionizes the CCP and one in which discussing party mistakes is risky business. For most young Chinese, a strong party-state that ensures stability, economic growth, and which fuels their nationalistic pride, is sufficient. Democratic ideals are unnecessary — and sometimes dangerous — intrusions by a West that wants to keep China “weak.”

Those are the two narratives that exist in the Taiwan Strait today. However difficult it might be for young Taiwanese to articulate their version, there is no doubt that liberal-democracy is intrinsic to their identity.

A ‘new’ Taiwanese identity

So what do I mean by “Taiwanese”? It’s important that we get the definition right, as this will have a direct impact on how young Taiwanese can explain who they are, and what Taiwan is all about, to a global audience.

Much of this can be self-evident to the people who live here. After all, their identity is their everyday life. But we should never assume that what is simple here is instantly understandable to people abroad who know very little about Taiwan and who are constantly bombarded by Chinese propaganda.

Being a Taiwanese today transcends “ethnicity” (e.g., Taiwanese, waishengren, Hakka, Aborigine). The Taiwan nation-state is therefore multicultural, and citizenship is defined by one’s participation in, and as a “subject” of, Taiwan’s democratic experiment.

Thus, one can identify as “ethnically” or culturally Chinese (according to the latest NCCU poll those who do so account for 3.3% of respondents), and yet also regard him/herself as a Taiwanese. This is very similar to citizenship as it is understood in Western multicultural countries like the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Taiwan’s definition of the nation is therefore very much rooted in Western traditions. Young Taiwanese seem to have internalized the multicultural definition of citizenship better than previous generations.

The composition of last year’s Sunflower Movement, or the fact that young “ethnic” Taiwanese were fighting for the civic rights of old Nationalist soldiers at he Huaguang Community in Taipei the previous year, is evidence of this. That is largely because the ties that tied many residents to China no longer exist — or only exist among elderly individuals.

Home is where you sit, and for young Taiwanese, China may be the land of one’s ancestors, but this attachment has as much influence as, say, my own ancestors — from Ireland and France — on my own identity as a Canadian.

That is why many second- and third-generation “mainlanders” are truly Taiwanese in their citizenship, even if some of them might not know it or are afraid to say so. More and more, whether they are “blue” or “green,” what differentiates all of them from the Chinese is self-evident, at least to those of us who live here.

Understanding this is crucial, because this is not how China understands citizenship and nationalism. For it, nationalism is civilizational; it transcends borders so that wherever one is geographically, he or she remains a Chinese with responsibilities and obligations toward the “motherland.” That’s why you will find many more Chinese overseas who are proactively — and very vocally — advocating for their country’s position on territorial disputes, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong…and Taiwan, of course. This contrasts with how the many Taiwanese who live overseas often have become citizens of their adopted country first and are Taiwanese second.

The challenge is to explain this to a foreign audience. But before Taiwanese can do so, they must also address the second divide, and this one, ironically, exists between the Taiwanese in Taiwan and overseas Taiwanese.

The Taiwanese divide

Over the years I have often noted a certain sense of “we know better” among overseas Taiwanese vis-à-vis the Taiwanese who are here in Taiwan. I’ve often heard criticism by overseas Taiwanese that the people here — especially young people — are “apolitical,” or worse, that they are being deceived or “brainwashed” by the Chinese Nationalist party (KMT).

I think those accusations could be true if the Taiwanese here didn’t know who and what they are. But most of them do; they’re just very bad at demonstrating it, probably because that’s not an issue to them. If your identity is secure, no matter what the government or the media (or China) tells you, you’ll laugh it off and continue with your life.

That’s even more the case in an open society like Taiwan, where more and more people get their information outside the classroom — at home, among friends, on Facebook, PTT Board, et cetera. They may memorize what they’re told in class or what they read in textbooks, but that’s because they want to pass their exams, get good grades, and secure placement in good universities.

Moreover, young Taiwanese here, especially those who are of voting age, must make “pragmatic” decisions because, unlike those who live overseas, they will have to live with the direct consequences of their decisions. That is why they will sometimes vote in ways that seem odd to Taiwanese overseas, or not come across as “radical” enough in their defense of Taiwan.

Taiwanese overseas tend to have an understanding of what it means to be a Taiwanese citizen that is closer to how their parents and grandparents saw it. And because of the traumas they experienced under martial law, it’s not surprising that the KMT, and “mainlanders” in general, would be regarded with suspicion.

While all of this is perfectly understandable, it also prevents many overseas Taiwanese from seeing the extraordinary change that has occurred in Taiwan over the years, and how the definition of what it means to be a Taiwanese has changed.

Admittedly, this is something that is difficult to see unless you live in Taiwan long enough. Short summer visits are insufficient, in my opinion, to appreciate just how things have changed. Therefore, if Taiwanese here and those who live overseas are to present a “united front” to advocate for Taiwan, they need to better understand each other.

Taiwanese here must better explain what it means to be a Taiwanese in the 21st century, and Taiwanese overseas need to be more open-minded about how identity and nationalism have changed and become more inclusive. Taiwanese here must also be more open-minded when dealing with their counterparts overseas and avoid making the latter feel like they have been “tainted” by their exposure to a foreign society, that they are no longer “real” Taiwanese.

The chasm that continues to exist between Taiwanese here and those overseas is what is preventing an effective counterpropaganda campaign.

The support for the Sunflower Movement abroad that we saw last year gives us cause for optimism, but there’s still a lot of work to do. If the Taiwanese cannot agree among themselves about what it means to be a Taiwanese in 2015, can you imagine how much more difficult it must be for other people to understand, let alone support, Taiwan’s aspirations?

The first task, therefore, is for Taiwanese on both sides of the divide — those here in Taiwan and their cousins in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe — to better understand each other. Supporters abroad must bring themselves up to date on current realities in Taiwan, even if this means breaking with longstanding notions of identity and nationhood that were passed on to them by their parents and grandparents. There’s been a generational shift in Taiwan, and it is having a major impact on politics here. A similar generational shift has to take place among overseas Taiwanese.

Only once this is accomplished can the Taiwanese turn to the task of convincing the rest of the world about why Taiwan matters and why it is distinct from China. In other words, the Taiwanese need their own United Front and their own propaganda strategy. I propose five areas that need focusing on.

A counterpropaganda strategy

First, they need to demonstrate that the Taiwan “issue” is not merely a dispute pitting Beijing and the “pro-China” KMT against a “small group” of “pro-independence” people from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Showing that the majority of Taiwanese, including most of the people who vote for the KMT, oppose unification with China, and explaining why that is so, should be a key element to any future counterpropaganda campaign. This would also demonstrate that the real enemy isn’t proximate, but that it is external.

As long as the world believes that Taiwan and China are not “re-unified” only because “a small group of people,” abetted by the U.S. security umbrella, do not want it, they will not feel compelled to support Taiwan’s cause or to risk their relationship with China over the matter.

Second, it is important for the Taiwanese to let the world know that they are not “anti China,” a favorite term of CCP propaganda that connotes “irrationality” and “hatred.” For better or worse, Taiwan relies and will continue to rely on China, the world’s second-largest economy and now a major player on the international scene. Consequently, Taiwan has an advantage in China being successful, just as the U.S.’ neighbors have every advantage in that country being successful.

But like any other country, Taiwanese must balance the benefits of dealing with China with the shortcomings and risks of doing so. The task for the Taiwanese is to convince the international community that Taiwan’s challenge when it comes to dealing with China is the same as theirs — one of balancing and hedging. The Taiwanese must demonstrate that rapprochement and the desire for better ties with Beijing are not the equivalent of support for unification; rather, it’s a desire for normalization, for Taiwan to be treated as an equal.

If Beijing refuses to do so, then that’s its problem, and it, rather than Taiwan, will be seen as the “irrational” side that threatens regional stability. Simply put, the second task is to counter the perception that Taiwanese represent that “irrational” side, that it undermines peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Third, Taiwanese counter-propagandists must seize the opportunity that an increasingly repressive China is creating for them.

The crackdown on every aspect of Chinese society — the media, the Internet, churches, rights activists, lawyers, minority groups — that has intensified under President Xi Jinping has made it clear that economic liberalization and modernization have not led to the hoped-for political liberalization. In fact, the opposite has occurred. This makes Taiwan’s democratization even more exceptional and precious. The same applies to what’s been going on in Hong Kong, which could very well be what awaits Taiwan under the “one country, two systems” formula that Beijing insists on.

In other words, the task for the Taiwanese is to connect developments in China with Taiwan to show why Taiwan would inevitably suffer under unification, and why a free, sovereign and democratic Taiwan is good for the region and the international community.

Taiwanese need to ask the world: Do you want to reward the increasingly authoritarian regime in Beijing by “giving” it Taiwan, by subjugating more people to its repressive rule?

However, it is very clear that if the Taiwanese are to use this tool, they will have to be more attentive to what’s going on in Hong Kong and China then they do at present. Even though for most of them what happens in China seems irrelevant because this is occurring in a different country, it is extremely relevant to their ability to tell the world why Taiwan is distinct. Taiwanese who ignore developments in China do so at their peril.

Fourth, while this applies less to Taiwanese who live overseas, Taiwanese in Taiwan must improve their communication skills.

Unfortunately for them, the rest of the world does not speak Mandarin or read Chinese. Taiwanese must learn to communicate in a language that is understandable to their audience. I’ve been to far too many protests over the years where everything was in Mandarin, while all the placards, posters, and banners were in Chinese.

How is the rest of the world supposed to know what’s going on? Why should they care?

Even less helpful are conferences in Taiwanese, where even the Mandarin-speaking journalists who are based in Taiwan have no idea of what’s being said. Learn English properly, or invest in translators.

Make it less easy for the rest of the world to continue ignoring Taiwan. Sad to say, but the Chinese are doing a much better job at speaking to the world in a language that it understands. You cannot not care about the rest of the world and yet expect that the rest of the world will care. It’s a two-way street.

Fifth, the Taiwanese must find creative ways to combat censorship in the traditional media and academia, which tends to reinforce Beijing’s position on Taiwan.

While it may be difficult to break the intellectual wall that has been erected — often because of economic or institutional interests — new media offer a way to counter this. Taiwanese overseas must also be creative in their campaigns for Taiwan and find ways to generate interest. Simple protests outside a government building by a few dozen individuals might no longer be sufficient. Escalate, but escalate intelligently, so as to avoid making enemies rather than friends.

In the end, however, for all these strategies to be effective, Taiwanese in Taiwan and those who live abroad must be on the same page on what it means to be a Taiwanese. Like China, Taiwan must therefore have its own United Front.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. His latest book, Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan, was published in March 2015. This article is based on a talk given by the author on July 26, 2015, at the 2015 Taiwan UN Youth Camp『2015台灣UN青年研習營』 organized by the Taiwan United Nations Alliance.

8 Responses to “Taiwan Needs a Counter-Propaganda Strategy”

July 29, 2015 at 4:33 am, Stewart Glen said:

1. Drop 10/10 and replace it with 5/20. Change the year from 104 to 19. End the ROC and officially become Taiwan or New Taiwan if you prefer (def NOT Chinese Taipei). Change the flag.
2. Demilitarize immediately. Declare New Taiwan to be a neutral country. Replace Armed Forces with a volunteer Search and Rescue force. Keep what hardware we need to effect rescue operations on land and at sea and gift the rest (the stuff that goes “bang”) to China as a hong bao to agree to this New Taiwan deal.
3. Green the energy of the country. Lead the world in this technology. Moth ball the nuclear plants and develop geothermal, wind, solar and tidal energy.
4. Become the gateway to China for the rest of the world, and China’s gateway to said rest of the world with state of the art trade agreements.
5. Fix Article 19 of the Immigration Laws to allow dual citizenship.
6. Live Long and Prosper.


July 29, 2015 at 3:36 pm, Torch Pratt said:

This is without a doubt the best thing ever written about Taiwan, my home, that’s appeared on Thinking-Taiwan. Instead of listing reasons why this article is completely brilliant, I’d just like to encourage everyone to read it again.


August 07, 2015 at 2:49 pm, Catie Lilly (@catielila) said:

@JMichaelCole, you write: ‘If Taiwanese here and those who live overseas are to present a “united front” to advocate for Taiwan, they need to better understand each other.Taiwanese here must better explain what it means to be a Taiwanese in the 21st century, and Taiwanese overseas need to be more open-minded about how identity and nationalism have changed and become more inclusive.’

As a 2nd gen. Taiwanese-American, I think this is an excellent point. But it’s worth mentioning, too, that advocacy for Taiwan in America is sustained almost exclusively by ‘native Taiwanese’ and their children, plus our stalwart non-Taiwanese allies. Our peers, friends, and classmates from waishengren families nearly all identify as Chinese-American, desire eventual unification, or have no particular feelings towards the subject. So the divide has persisted not only because of what our parents taught us, but also because of the differences in our self-identity compared to our waishengren-descended friends.

What I would love to see is more cooperation between 2nd gen Taiwanese-Americans and young immigrants from Taiwan (especially college and postgraduate students). But the language barrier is tough. Some of the most dedicated Taiwanese-American activists I know cannot speak, let alone read, Mandarin or Taiwanese. In my experience, the cultural and linguistic gap makes it difficult for us even to be friends with recent Taiwanese arrivals. What we need, desperately, are experienced translators who can send out announcements, bulletins, videos, and emails in both Mandarin/Taiwanese and English. Only then can we begin to build a more effective solidarity.


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