The Chinese government has been preparing to launch an evacuation operation, helping citizens of China, Hong Kong, and Macao to flee from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, Taiwanese people holding specific certificates are also eligible for the evacuation registration, which reflects China’s official claim over Taiwan’s sovereignty.
The Taiwanese government immediately rebuked China’s inclusion of Taiwanese citizens in the evacuation plan. However, a China-based Taiwanese vlogger, Lin Wei-kang (who goes by the online moniker “Kang-kang”), released a video praising the Chinese government’s responsiveness amid the crisis. In this video, Lin emotionally describes the Taiwan-China relationship, stating that “although you [Taiwan] don’t listen to me, you are still my child,” a comment that paints Taiwan as the naughty child and China the generous parent.
The video clip went viral on both Chinese and Taiwanese social media. It was further shared by Chinese state-owned media outlets. However, it is not deemed as a victory for Beijing’s propaganda blitz. Instead, videos like this have caused a backlash among Chinese citizens who have criticized the government’s slow response to evacuating its people from Ukraine.
This is not the first time for China to claim that Taiwanese people are eligible to be evacuated by the Chinese embassy during a crisis. In September 2018, the Chinese embassy evacuated 1,044 tourists, including 32 Taiwanese, from the Kansai Airport of Japan after it was struck by a powerful typhoon. Several Chinese state-owned media outlets covered the story, emphasizing that some Taiwanese tourists who identified as Chinese were allowed to get on the bus sent by the Chinese embassy. The story was immediately shared by a China-based online user and reported by Taiwanese media, engendering a lot of controversy in Taiwan. The article attacked the Taiwanese government for not evacuating its citizens as soon as possible, and a Taiwanese diplomat in Japan even committed suicide over the mounting criticism. However, the story was ultimately revealed to be a fake news report originating from a Chinese online media outlet, Guancha Syndicate, and shared by state propaganda organs, such as Xinhua News Agency.
Although these efforts target Taiwanese society, the Chinese government’s propaganda was initially motivated by domestic demands for the protection of overseas citizens. Since China started encouraging state-owned and private enterprises to invest outward around the globe, its economic and commercial activities overseas have soared rapidly over the past decades. As more and more Chinese nationals live and work worldwide, the Chinese public has appealed for the official protection of Chinese citizens’ lives and interests abroad during social unrest or natural disasters.
As a result, China has stepped up its propaganda, only allowing positive coverage of overseas rescue missions. Most importantly, state-owned media outlets have emphasized that the Chinese government outperforms other countries in protecting its citizens abroad. For instance, amid the 2015 Nepal earthquake, a Global Times report claimed that “once again, China evacuates its citizens sooner than other countries,” illustrating the government’s propaganda strategy to bolster Chinese people’s confidence in the ruling authority. In 2016, the Communist Party-run tabloid Global Times even reported the Chinese evacuation mission from an earthquake-hit town in New Zealand with a headline stressing that British tourists were envious of Chinese citizens being evacuated in advance. The rhetoric of Chinese media coverage on the Kansai Airport incident in 2018 was also congruent with previous coverage of overseas disasters, but the main target audience in this case was citizens of Taiwan.
Given the geographic and linguistic proximity, as well as political and historical legacy, China has attempted to manipulate public opinion on Taiwan through propaganda and influence operations aimed at supporting its political ambition to annex Taiwan. With the expansion of social networking sites, the Chinese government has ramped up its propaganda apparatus in order to both covertly and overtly infiltrate social media in Taiwan. As a result, most fake news articles that circulate on Taiwanese social media originate from China’s content farm websites as well as state-owned media. The political storm ignited by the Kansai Airport incident is one of the iconic cases evidencing China’s manipulation of public opinion in Taiwan.
Nevertheless, China has recalibrated its propaganda strategy to focus more on cultivating online influencers, including vloggers from Western countries and Taiwan. In order to amplify Chinese propaganda dissemination amongst the Taiwanese youth, Chinese authorities have even provided so-called online influencer training programs for young Taiwanese. Kang-kang, the Taiwanese vlogger who praised China’s evacuation plan amid the Russia-Ukraine war, also participated in one of these influencer training programs. In late 2019, an online post by a Chinese local government aimed to recruit “mainland-friendly, pro-unification” Taiwanese influencers right before the 2020 Taiwanese presidential election.
In recent years there have been more and more China-based Taiwanese vloggers and online influencers on major Chinese social networking sites. For example, a TikTok vlogger, Li Qiaoxin, also known as “Taiwan Cousin,” has become tremendously popular in China. In one of her videos Li says, “I have entered China without any regrets in my life,” and she claims to be a supporter of China-Taiwan unification. Currently, Li has nearly 1 million followers on TikTok.
In addition to Kang-kang and Li, other China-based Taiwanese vloggers have also recorded video clips applauding the performance of the Chinese government for its protection of overseas citizens. These vloggers also emphasize the significance of the Chinese passport: that it can bring you back home safely from anywhere in the world. This rhetoric echoes China’s propaganda objectives domestically and externally.
On the one hand, China often encourages the people’s support for the government through domestic propaganda by favorably comparing its government capability with foreign countries. The strategy behind China’s propaganda is to address people’s discontent regarding the ineffectiveness and incompetence of bureaucracy. It also aligns with the rising “wolf warrior”-style propaganda used by Chinese diplomats. On the other hand, the Chinese government widely uses its media outlets, cyber army, and influencers across borders to manipulate online public opinion, and Taiwan has become a testing ground for China’s influence operations. People are more easily influenced amid a crisis; thus the Kansai Airport incident exemplified a worst-case scenario of being the target of a Chinese propaganda campaign.
However, it seems that the Chinese propaganda campaigns did not function as expected in the case of the Ukraine evacuations. Instead, positive coverage of China’s evacuation response led to a public backlash by Chinese citizens on social media against the exaggerated propaganda narrative. Why is this case different? First, the Chinese government took too long in preparing its evacuation plan compared to other countries, so it could not credibly claim it outperformed others, including Taiwan. The central point of China’s propaganda message is that it has a faster response to crises than other countries. As such, Chinese citizens were not convinced by propaganda surrounding the evacuation from Ukraine.
Second, the Taiwanese government promptly declared that the Taiwanese foreign ministry had successfully evacuated many Taiwanese citizens who were trying to leave Ukraine – long before China issued its own evacuation plan. This undermines the Chinese propaganda message, which claims Beijing is the most effective government. It also creates an additional backlash amongst Chinese citizens who expect their government to outperform others.
Furthermore, Taiwan has experienced countless Chinese influence operations in the past, and the government has learned how to correct online disinformation as it emerges. This, of course, does not mean that the Taiwanese people do not need to worry about China’s propaganda campaigns anymore; on the contrary, it reminds democratic countries of the importance of vigilance in the face of foreign disinformation campaigns. The damage can be mitigated by the joint efforts of civil society and government.