It happens way too often, and it is exactly how China tries to desensitize the world to falsehoods.
Wrestler-turned-actor John Cena became the latest victim of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bullying when he issued a somewhat groveling apology — in Mandarin Chinese, no less — for referring to Taiwan as a country in passing. This has become a familiar pattern: A celebrity will accidently blurt out some truth — the Uyghurs are being persecuted; Taiwan is a country — and within days or even hours, that celebrity will issue a hasty apology, presumably having been threatened with loss of income from the lucrative Chinese market. If the apology is not deemed to be apologetic enough, as in Cena’s case, more demands follow. If these demands are not met, the boycott begins. Oftentimes, it goes straight to the boycotting.
Recent examples include a South Korean gamer who apologized after Chinese players of the Overwatch League threatened to boycott him. His sin? He commented on social media as part of a broader discussion that “I can’t call Taiwan, Taiwan.” His apology, like Cena’s, was deemed insufficient by the Chinese netizens. Late last year, Japanese cartoon celebrities on YouTube had to apologize for listing Taiwan as one of the countries that contributed the most to their subscribers. Adding to their sins was a display of the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag.
And it’s not just individuals: Fashion brands, carmakers, sporting-goods companies, and hotels have a history of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” and then hastily kowtowing so as not to be barred from the Chinese market. Even though a majority of these companies also do business with Taiwan, and maintain a physical presence in Taiwan — which means they know full well that China has no jurisdiction over it — the market strength of this island nation and the “feelings” of the Taiwanese people seem to be ignored.
It’s not exactly news that Beijing has long been trying to distort the reality about Taiwan: using its economic and political might to make sure other countries parrot the falsehood that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Usually, these efforts come either through the CCP government directly, or through the sheer number of Chinese netizens (clearly with the government’s tacit approval). The false narrative is typically accompanied by threats to income or access, and is also aided by Chinese diplomats who disrupt meetings and cultural events where Taiwanese participants display their national flag.
Yet the intensity and increasing frequency of this bullying is alarming, especially since early 2018, when Beijing blatantly issued a directive to foreign airlines demanding that they stop listing Taiwan as a “country” on their websites and apps — or face an unspecified punishment. After the airlines went along to get along, testing companies, financial institutions, and cosmetic brands were all also successfully pressured into modifying how they refer to Taiwan. Even educational materials made for schools around the world are not immune: A Chinese law requires that all maps and globes manufactured in China must show Taiwan in the same color as China.
After a while, this lie by a thousand cuts begins to take on the patina of truth, and people around the world become inured to the falsehood. But a falsehood it is. Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China (ROC), is its own sovereign country. Unlike China, it is a vibrant democracy that enjoys freedoms of speech, the press, and religion, and respects the rule of law. All of these traits are practically nonexistent in the PRC.
Taiwan has been ranked by the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House as “free” for the 23rd consecutive year in its latest “Freedom in the World” report released in March. It scores the highest-possible mark on the question, “Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?” China’s score on this question? Zero.
The island nation’s democratic spirit and open society underscore the value that its people place on government transparency, which cannot be stressed enough during the pandemic. The government communicates fully with the public so that they have a clear picture of what the country is facing, and what steps the health authorities are taking in response. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic until very recently, Taiwan was able to maintain a normal life without locking down, and it achieved one of its most impressive economic growth rates in recent years. The recent surge in COVID cases has posed a challenge, but compared with some of the worst-hit places, Taiwan’s case counts remain low. The government instituted a soft lockdown and appealed to the public’s civic-mindedness.
In fact, Taiwan was also one of the first countries to sound the alarm on the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the new coronavirus. This warning was ignored. Opacity in certain quarters is the reason we are in this pandemic in the first place.
The fact that Taiwan’s warning failed to see the light of day exposes the root problem that Taiwan remains locked outside of some of the most crucial international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, because of political interference. If Taiwan insists on being an independent entity, which it rightly is, then it faces closed doors to international bodies.
Chinese behavior toward Taiwan on the international stage — whether it’s forcing companies and individuals to carry its water, or outright denying Taiwan’s participation in international organizations — amounts to nothing less than an erasure campaign. Beijing denies Taiwan’s existence, hoping that by repeating this falsehood for long enough, people will start to believe it.
No matter how Beijing spins its narrative, it cannot change the facts on the ground. But it wields enough economic and political clout that celebrities such as Cena go to great lengths to appease the CCP regime. Pundits like to argue that it all comes down to money, so it’s not really a difficult choice. Indeed, profits are important for businesses. But so are values. Especially for those who claim to have a sense of corporate social responsibility.
Over the past few years, the world has gradually been waking up to China’s coercive behavior, as more and more countries find themselves on the receiving end of China’s ire. It behooves democracies around the world to live up to their values, and to refuse to utter falsehoods such as China’s claim over Taiwan, whenever and wherever they can. Democracies can also band together to resist China’s economic coercion — the force of many is greater than the force of one, and as has already been suggested by some experts, an economic Article 5 similar to that of NATO would be a good place to start.
Beijing wants the world to believe that Taiwan does not exist. Taiwan’s people need your help to make sure that does not happen.