When China conducted live-fire drills around Taiwan and simulated strikes on the nation in response to President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) visit to the US last month, CNN posted a video news update on Twitter from reporter Will Ripley with the caption: “China is provoking Taiwan in response to its president’s trip to the US.”
This framing encapsulated an interesting narrative shift by US media in reporting on Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. Rather than framing Tsai’s visit as being that of a story of Taiwan “provoking” China — Beijing’s preferred narrative — the post reversed that framing.
The caption was not the only example of international media centering Taiwan in its reporting of Tsai’s trip. Following her speech at the Heritage Foundation the day before, the Washington Post reported on the contents of her speech with the headline “Listen to Taiwan’s pleas, not China’s grumbles” — centering Taiwan, at the expense of Beijing.
This reporting was in stark contrast to how international English-language media generally framed the visit by then-US House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August last year. It is possible that media newsrooms this time around thought hard about how to report on Tsai’s trip without falling into the trap of simply reproducing Beijing’s narrative, a trap that they arguably fell into during Pelosi’s visit.
Despite the Three Joint Communiques — the documents upon which the US-China relationship is built — containing nothing about prohibiting US politicians from visiting Taiwan, much of the international English-language media reporting reproduced Beijing’s narrative by framing Pelosi’s trip as “provoking” Beijing.
CNN led with the headline “Pelosi angers China but Taiwan, not the US, may pay the higher price.” The New Yorker published an article by Taiwan academic Shelley Rigger under the headline: “The provocative politics of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.”
The Guardian called her visit “reckless and provocative.”
Beijing’s response to Pelosi’s visit was always a choice, yet this crucial detail was largely omitted in the English-language reporting on her visit. The media frame blaming the US or Taiwan had already been shaped by Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy in the weeks and months leading up to the visit.
Beijing asserts — loudly — that Taiwan is an “inalienable” part of China and its “internal affair.” It calls Taiwan’s democratically elected government “separatist forces.” It promises to use force if Taiwan ever declares itself independent. Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) asserts that Taiwanese and Chinese share in the dream of “national reunification.” Support for unification in Taiwan sits at about 5 percent.
Beijing erroneously claims that its “one China principle” — that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — is an international consensus, part of the “basic norms governing international relations.” The PRC has always made reference to the 1943 Cairo Declaration and 1945 Potsdam Proclamation to justify its claim that Taiwan is part of China (this has no basis in international law).
Recently, PRC diplomats have gone a step further — narrativizing the “return” of Taiwan to China as being a core component of the post-World War II international order. In this regard, with its principled position on Taiwan, China frames itself as a custodian of the post-war international order — against the revisionism of the US and its allies who seek to undo that order.
How should this rhetorical positioning on Taiwan in statements like these from Beijing be understood? The Council on Geostrategy’s James Rogers has a useful term, “discursive statecraft,” which means the attempt by a country “to articulate concepts, ideas and objects into new discourses to degrade existing political and ideological frameworks or generate entirely new ones.” One way of thinking about this is that “such efforts are designed to (re)structure how people can think and act, as well as what can be said and thought.”
By narrativizing Taiwan’s return to the PRC as being a core component of the international order, Beijing aims to degrade the existing framework of how and when that order was actually forged — before the PRC was even founded in 1949. With this rhetoric, Beijing aims to insert a new conceptual framework into our discourse in the service of degrading our existing framework that Taiwan was never returned to China.
Beijing’s international strategy on Taiwan is to convince the world that Taiwan does not exist. Not in any meaningful sense. Its assertion that Taiwan is its own “internal affair” seeks to override our understanding that Taiwan is a democratic nation that was never part of the PRC. Its assertion that Taiwan has been “part of China since ancient times” and “both sides of the Taiwan Strait” have a dream of “reunification” aims to erase our concept that Taiwanese exist with real political views, views that run contrary to the Chinese Communist Party’s pronouncements.
There is already literature that suggests exposure to foreign media reporting can “substantially affect the audience’s knowledge, perception and attitude toward other nations.” How the story is framed — known as “second level” agenda-setting — matters and can have an influence on public perceptions. Evidence that media reporting significantly influences policymakers — known as the CNN effect — is less unanimous. Yet there is still a possibility that media frames shape general public opinion, views that in turn can influence policymakers’ decisions.
All too often international media allow Beijing’s narrative — otherwise known as discourse operations — to shape their reporting on Taiwan.
When former British prime minister Liz Truss visited Taiwan recently, some in the UK media unquestionably reproduced Beijing’s framing that the visit was a “dangerous stunt.” An Observer editorial, in addition to describing Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as “gratuitously provoking Beijing,” described Truss’ trip as being a “clumsy intervention” unnecessarily provoking China.
Prompted by the discourse shaping already launched by the Beijing embassy in the run-up to Truss’ visit, liberal academic Jennifer Cassidy wrote that the former prime minister sought to “actively insult” and “anger” China. She made no mention in her article of Taiwan as an actual place beyond Beijing’s pronouncements.
Reducing Taiwan to the pronouncements of the Chinese embassy aids Beijing in its discursive statecraft aims. When reporting on Taiwan, international media should be careful to center Taiwan’s perspective, not Beijing’s pronouncements or framing of Taiwan. It was telling that there was little coverage about how Taiwan welcomes gestures of support with visitations or that Truss is a democratically elected politician from a friendly state visiting in an expression of solidarity with a fellow democracy.
Of course when reporting on Taiwan the media must report on what Beijing has to say. Beijing claims Taiwan as its own and threatens war if it does not get its way. This is part of the story. However, editors should be aware of Beijing’s discourse aimed at shaping how people think and speak about Taiwan. Otherwise, they will simply carry water for Beijing.
This is important.
If enough countries come around to Beijing’s way of thinking, it will leave Taiwan to the mercy of its dictatorship.
Daniel McIntyre is a research assistant at the law institute of Academia Sinica. He is the author of the weekly newsletter The World’s Taiwan, The Taiwan World on Substack.
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