More alert readers might have on Wednesday noticed a half-page ad in the local newspapers that read: “I want to go back home and spend the Lunar New Year with my family.” The more curious might have seen the signatures at the bottom: business leaders and members of the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland. The ad was targeted at the government and its policy of postponing extra flights for Xiamen Air and China Eastern Airlines.
These Taiwanese businesspeople in China have joined the “united front” organization of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and are publicly calling Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅), Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) and Li Bingcai (李炳才) — all of whom have held senior TAO positions — their leaders.
At crucial moments, these people receive orders and start criticizing their own country. An obvious example was the letter titled “In Support of One China” penned by former Chi Mei chairman Hsu Wen-lung (許文龍) in 2005, just before the presidential inauguration and his retirement.
A decade on, we have seen countless examples of this. The US-based Taiwan Foundation for Democracy has a special term for it: “sharp power.” Different from “soft power,” it refers to a totalitarian state’s ability to intimidate or manipulate another nation.
This latest development by the association is a manifestation of sharp power. These business heads in the association made known through an interview on Jan. 18 — the very day that the Civil Aeronautics Administration announced the postponements of the flights — their opinion that the government was using Taiwanese businesspeople in China as bargaining chips.
In retrospect, it appears that this little trick was intended to amplify China’s insistence on opening up the northbound M503 flight route.
Is it really true that the signatories will be unable to return for the Lunar New Year break? If it was known that some association members have told the Mainland Affairs Council and the Straits Exchange Foundation in private that this was a TAO requirement and they were left with no choice, it would become obvious whose bidding they were doing.
Why would a nation such as China — which tries to influence events by pulling on puppet strings — stop at bullying Taiwanese businesspeople? It has been exerting this sharp power on Taiwan’s entertainment industry for some time now. In the past, Taiwanese artists would not have had to make known their stance on Taiwanese independence as they are now expected to do. Due to the dictates of the market, Taiwan’s main acts have little choice but to go to China if they want to make big money. Meanwhile, fans in Taiwan rarely get to see these acts, but Taiwanese audiences got used to this state of affairs years ago.
It is not only in China that this sharp power is being exerted: It is also happening in Taiwan, albeit in very subtle ways.
The perceptive reader looking through the shelves in bookstores popular with Chinese tourists will discover that large sections are given over to Chinese history, while Taiwanese looking for books on Taiwanese history will be hard pressed to find any, and will certainly not find them just by browsing the shelves. The titles they want are secreted in the Chinese history section, or placed in the politics section.
It is no wonder that even Western countries are expressing concern about the ideological onslaught that China is undertaking.
This one advertisement makes it abundantly clear that Taiwan is on the front line of applying sharp power, and is engaged in fighting it on a daily basis.
What is our counterstrategy in all this? How are we to view our compatriots who have already gone over to the other side? These are questions that we, as a nation, will have to come to some agreement on.
Tzou Jiing-wen is the editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper).
Translated by Paul Cooper
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