EDITORIAL: Chinese Media Managers Help Taiwan

The international English-language media has experienced something of a renaissance when it comes to covering Taiwan. Recent years have seen unprecedented interest in stories about the nation, and for once not just because of its implications for China.

Ironically, China is largely to thank for this state of affairs. Foreign journalists face intense harassment there, making it difficult, if not impossible, to stay there.

This deterioration has been documented by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China in successive annual reports, its latest survey of its members from January revealing widespread online and offline harassment, visa denials and hacks, as well as officially sanctioned prosecutions against journalists. A shocking number of journalists – 18 – were expelled in 2020, far more than in previous years. Hong Kong has fared little better amid the political unrest that has gripped the territory.

This relentless harassment has pushed journalists to nearby outposts where they can continue to report from afar. Given its geographical and linguistic proximity, Taiwan has become a natural choice for relocation. There are now more international correspondents in Taiwan than ever before – 124 from 71 companies, according to the Foreign Ministry last year.

Where there are journalists, there will be stories. Given the opportunity to immerse themselves in Taiwanese society, journalists find more creative and interesting angles to express familiar topics, especially when it comes to cross-Strait relations.

A typical story of this genre traditionally centers on US-China relations or an organization’s “political blunder” with a cut-and-paste explanatory on the “separatist province”, followed by a poll – hopefully – showing that the Taiwanese prefer the “status quo”, leaving the reader with the impression that Taiwan is nothing more than a thorn in the side of the countries’ foreign relations with China.

Contrast that with a Vox video from April 1, which creatively uses China’s ban on the import of Taiwanese atemoya as a framework for discussing cross-Strait relations. While mentioning typical talking points about Chinese aircraft incursions, poaching of diplomatic allies and historical relations, the video focuses on Taiwanese voices, highlighting the harsh effect that Chinese “punishment” has had on the Taiwanese farmers and how Taiwan has adapted.

The New York Times also touched on the subject with a front-page article in the January 20 international edition succinctly titled “We Are Taiwanese.” The piece paints a nuanced picture from a Taiwanese perspective, relegating China’s talking points to a side note in the larger narrative of Taiwanese identity.

On March 1, CNN told personal stories from the White Terror era, saying that “interest in the island’s painful journey to democracy is growing — as are fears it could be suppressed.” The January Guardian also highlighted the democratization of the nation through the debate surrounding the Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) memorials.

Some outlets dig even deeper, bringing to light cultural stories that would be hard to imagine finding space a few years earlier. The Washington Post has published a few lately, including an April 6 profile from the satirical YouTube channel EyeCTV that pokes fun at Chinese state media, and an April 4 article about ethnic Han Taiwanese seeking to integrate into indigenous communities.

As is usually the case, China shot itself in the foot with its own myopia. Expelling foreign journalists might have given Beijing more control over domestic narratives through its state-run media, but at the cost of increasing Taiwan’s global voice.

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