EDITORIAL: Self-censorship harming democracy

Fri, Aug 10, 2018 - Page 8

Despite branding Taiwan as a defender of freedom of creation and speech, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ unexpected removal on Wednesday of a sarcastic tweet mocking China’s reported ban on the new Disney movie, Christopher Robin, has raised questions.

To engage a wider global audience, Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) launched an official ministry Twitter account in April, followed by an Instagram account last month.

Since then, Twitter has become an important platform for the ministry to promote noteworthy events and visits by foreign dignitaries, or to draw attention to Beijing’s latest round of bullying against Taiwan in the international arena.

However, the account did not really attract the attention of foreign media until Tuesday, when its account manager posted a message comparing the difference in treatment of the movie on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

The tweet was perceived as an attempt to criticize China’s censors and underscore how free Taiwan is. The story was picked up by CNN the next day.

“Taiwan’s #OhBear is dismayed at the ban slapped on his cousin Winnie’s latest film by censors in #China,” the ministry said on Twitter, where it also shared an image of the OhBear motif — based on the Formosan black bear — which was created by the Tourism Bureau in 2013 to promote local tourism.

“Make no mistake: All bears are created equal in #Taiwan and @DisneyCRobin is screening nationwide,” it said.

Although it is debatable whether it is appropriate for a ministry in charge of foreign relations to publicly mock another nation, the tweet does have its merits.

It helped to promote a native bear species to a global audience and also drew attention in a somewhat amusing manner to Taiwan’s proudest assets: freedom and democracy, which sets it apart from authoritarian China.

In China, due to the absence of freedom and democracy, a widely loved cartoon character has been banned because of its striking resemblance to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), while in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has embraced Taiwanese netizens’ comparison of her to Jedi master Yoda from Star Wars.

When asked to comment on the tweet being picked up by CNN, the ministry’s initial response was to stand behind its post, saying that it was designed to tell the world and those who care about Taiwan that “we are a nation with democracy and free speech.”

However, a few hours later, the ministry removed the tweet, saying only that it was doing so to avoid causing unnecessary misinterpretation.

Despite reiterating its commitment to safeguarding freedom of creation and speech, the removal sent a confusing signal to the public and has raised the inevitable question of just how committed the Democratic Progressive Party administration is to defending those values.

If the ministry took down the tweet to avoid trouble, is the mindset behind it not similar to what prompted news outlets and corporations around the world to self-censor to avoid upsetting China, a major source of advertising revenue and other business?

The trend of self-censorship is arguably one of the most crippling to undermine democratic norms and institutes. It is sad to see people willingly subject themselves to it for money; it is ever sadder to see the government doing it when this nation has been belittled and mistreated by the self-censorship of others.