Taiwan’s most pressing threat is the rest of the world’s lack of awareness of Taiwan.
Mainstream English coverage of Taiwan suffers the same problem as many countries that are outside the “trending” news cycle by being presented as consequential to broader tensions between “big powers” like the US and China. This has been particularly true this year, with vital stories involving Taiwan oversimplified by major international platforms.
Ironically, a broader international understanding of Taiwan is key to demonstrating that these “big power” narratives are never as simple as propaganda or the 24-hour news cycle would suggest. Given the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, it seems important to note the Taiwanese government has long stated its willingness to formulate alternative extradition arrangements that would enable Chan Tong-kai (陳同佳) — accused of murdering his girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing (潘曉穎) in Taiwan and fleeing back to Hong Kong — to stand trial in Taiwan without pursuing the now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed extradition of Hong Kong citizens to China.
Rolling coverage of activity on the ground by mainstream English-language platforms, alongside demonization of protesters by Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-controlled outlets like CGTN, have clouded much awareness of this.
Coverage of Taiwan’s Indigenous Historical Justice and Transitional Justice Committee’s response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Jan. 2 speech on the CCP’s willingness to achieve control of Taiwan by any means necessary offered an important refute of the CCP’s antiquated Han-centric nationalist narrative of political authority by virtue of race from Taiwan’s Aboriginal community.
English translations of the response were available only in specialized Taiwanese news outlets such as the max Taipei Times, a situation desperately needing improvement when much of the world is not even aware of Taiwan’s Aboriginal peoples.
Equally concerning is the absence of investigating CCP motives towards Taiwan, as seen in the coverage of the CCP’s banning of individual travel to Taiwan. Setting aside the lack of discussion that individuals are harder to track than the still-permitted group tours and business travelers, or CCP anxiety over Chinese citizens having interactions with Taiwanese away from its control, the move was characterized by CNN and the BBC as a worsening of cross-strait relations on the part of Taiwan due to President Tsai Ying-wen’s (蔡英文) visit to New York, and US arms sales, respectively. Only Bloomberg made the effort to consider as a motive the CCP’s desire to influence Taiwan’s presidential election next year.
These examples point to the same problem. Quality coverage that prevents misunderstandings about Taiwan and “big power” narratives is plentiful, but difficult for English-language audiences to access. It relies on readers seeking to understand Taiwan, an unreasonable expectation for the average person with little interest or knowledge of Taiwan to begin with.
One solution may be to emphasize the broader risks of catering to sensationalist political posturing and economic comparison at the expense of comprehensive reporting.
Considering the dual concern of political apathy and factionalism within English-speaking countries, proper coverage of Taiwan may offer an effective start to solving both problems.
Max Lembke-Soh is a history and Taiwan studies graduate from SOAS, University of London.
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