Rage, Confusion, and Disappointment on the Chinese Internet Follow Pelosi’s Taiwan Arrival

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and five other House Representatives landed in Taiwan on Tuesday evening as part of a tour of Asian democracies, details of which were leaked to the Financial Times in mid-July. Pelosi’s itinerary includes a meeting and public address with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, and meetings with members of Taiwan’s legislature and the chairman of the semiconductor manufacturer TSMC. China has expressed outrage at the trip and has repeatedly threatened unspecified military retaliation against all parties involved in what it terms a violation of its “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  Yet after a three-hour detour, Pelosi landed safely in Taipei aboard a U.S. Air Force plane that hundreds of thousands of people tracked in real time online. At The New York Times, Chris Buckley wrote that Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is a test of China’s appetite for military action against a nation it claims as its own:

The Chinese government perhaps gave a foretaste of how it would respond if Ms. Pelosi visits when the military announced live-fire exercises in waters 80 miles from neighboring Taiwan’s coast. On Monday, the 95th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, Chinese military media unleashed more statements about defending sovereignty, as well as video of China’s Dongfeng-17 ballistic missile. Chinese television also issued an unflattering video profile of Ms. Pelosi.

Mr. Xi has laid out eventual unification with Taiwan as one of his guiding goals for China’s “national rejuvenation” as a modern, unified superpower. He has said he wants to absorb Taiwan peacefully at some unspecified time in the future, but does not rule out force. China’s military modernization is approaching a point where an invasion of the island is conceivable, though still daunting and risk filled.

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation won’t be an effortless task achieved just by fanfare of gongs and drums,” he told officials in Beijing last week in a theme-setting speech for the party congress. [Source]

The days before Pelosi’s visit were marked by strident warnings from Beijing. Xi Jinping warned U.S. president Joe Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying gave a briefing warning against the visit as well, with state media explicitly noting that this was her first return to the podium since February 24—the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The Chinese Communist Party has nearly exclusively referred to Pelosi’s trip as a cuànfǎng 窜访, a derogatory term it has coined for state visits that it deems illegitimate. The same term has been applied to the Dalai Lama’s travels and Taiwanese politicians’ visits to Europe. On August 1st, the Weibo account of the Eastern Theater Command, the People’s Liberation Army command responsible for China’s eastern seaboard and the Taiwan Strait, posted a montage of combat training footage that finished with a warning: “We will bury all invading enemies.” On Twitter, former Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote, “I think it is okay too to shoot down Pelosi’s plane,” a stunt for which he was temporarily suspended from Twitter. Similarly martial rhetoric dominated Weibo discussion of the visit, to the disgust of some: “Can’t Weibo develop a feature whereby anyone who posts in support of war gets automatically enlisted? The more posts, the faster they should be sent to the front lines.” A screenshot of trending topics on the platform included “capture Tsai Ing-wen alive,” “Taiwan implements socialism,” and “One Country, One System.” 

The bombastic language out of official Chinese sources preceding Pelosi’s flight did not translate into immediate military confrontation in or above the Strait upon her arrival in Taipei—although the danger of a conflict has by no means passed. China announced plans to conduct live-fire military drills across six zones that encircle Taiwan and encroach on both Taiwan’s marine border and its territorial waters. The drills are scheduled to begin on August 4, after Pelosi’s scheduled departure. Chinese vice minister of foreign affairs Xie Feng summoned U.S. ambassador to China Nicholas Burns near midnight Beijing time and accused the U.S. government of “indulging” and “colluding” with Pelosi. Joe McReynolds, a senior China analyst at the Washington-based Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, told The New York Times that China is “not signaling that we are imminently about to go to war,” but warned that the situation might yet spiral into a dangerous conflict. 

The gap between pre-trip rhetoric and post-touchdown reality left many on Weibo confused. CDT Chinese compiled a number of netizen comments expressing disbelief that China had not gone to war as they expected and cynical jokes about China’s perceived weakness

熊本喵:Don’t complain. We can’t go to war. It might not be as simple as we thought. Our motherland is really passive. Sad, but it is what it is!

恬恬大聪明:I could never have imagined they’d beat the war drum so loud and then, in the end, have the whole nation go greet the old lady upon arrival. 

未梦与猫:Don’t lay on your comfortable bed and say, “how disappointing.”

拒绝一切内耗的小范同学:I still have faith in the government. War isn’t a game.

Lidangzzz:I just went to the corner store to buy cigarettes. The clerk said they only have Chinese smokes in soft packs. [Chinese]

Hu Xijin—who had earlier suggested shooting down Pelosi’s plane was “okay”—came in for a great deal of criticism from both ordinary netizens and elite bloggers for his rhetoric in the days leading up to the crisis. A number of netizens pointed out that Hu’s predictions about the P.R.C. response to episodes of U.S.-Taiwan engagement have often been off baseThe blogger Ren Yi, who writes under the name Chairman Rabbit, wrote a short essay criticizing Hu on Weibo and then took to Twitter to say: “Sensible China Watchers should cease to pay disproportional [sic] attention to Mr Hu, and discredit him as a voice of and from the Authority.” One netizen joked that the only way to get Hu “off the stage” might be to murder him. A Wechat essay on Hu and his inflammatory rhetoric on Taiwan concluded with a dig at Hu’s oft-professed patriotism:

My sole wish is that the day the U.S. and China go to war, Old Hu and his entire family, including but not limited to his son, daughter-in-law, nephew, and niece are the first people to enlist in the fight.

After all, you wouldn’t want someone else to actually achieve all the things you once bullshitted about. [Chinese]

Amidst the torrent of posts on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Weibo appeared to momentarily malfunction. Many mainland users claimed they were unable to get access to the site. New York Times columnist Li Yuan tweeted that “Pelosi crashed Weibo,” while explaining that many posts are slow to load, if they load at all. One netizen joked that turning off the Weibo servers was “the first sanction” incurred during the crisis. 


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