Taiwanese Perspectives Overlooked on Pelosi Visit

In the lead-up to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week, much of the Western media coverage was saturated with dramatic speculation about the prospect of war and other Chinese government retaliation. Largely ignored through this lens of great-power competition were Taiwanese voices, some of which questioned the utility of Pelosi’s visit and were showcased only after she had left Taipei. Many of them highlighted the disconnect between Western and Taiwanese perceptions of Pelosi’s visit, and argued that Western media’s omission of Taiwanese perspectives undermines the very agency Pelosi’s visit was designed to support in the face of imperial aggression. 

Satirical news outlet The Onion summarized an apparently widespread Western attitude toward Taiwanese opinions on Pelosi’s visit: “Who gives a shit what Taiwan thinks? This is about us and China.” At The Guardian, Wilfred Chan reported how Taiwanese interests were subsumed by the rhetoric of great-power competition:

“All of the hoopla and yellow journalism blowing up, it really only serves to bolster the Chinese acts of aggression,” says SueAnn Shiah, a 30-year-old writer and theologian who has made a film about Taiwanese American identity. 

[…] “I just want Americans to de-center themselves for a second,” she said. “I’m not going to pretend that the United States does not participate in imperialism. But in the specific case of Taiwan, the war is not being mongered by the United States. It’s acts of imperialist aggression from China. For those familiar with complexities of Taiwan situation, we understand US support as a deterrent to war.”

[…] Albert Wu, a Taiwanese American historian based in Taipei, believes Pelosi’s visit is a “huge deal symbolically”. But the framing of the story around US-China conflict repeats a common problem in western stories about Taiwan: it erases Taiwan’s perspective.

“Even in the coverage of this Pelosi situation, which has brought so much attention to Taiwan, there’s just very little about what the actors in Taiwan are actually thinking. The narrative is, still, you need the US to come in and save Taiwan.” [Source]

Before Pelosi’s visit finally materialized, few people in Taiwan were preoccupied by it:

[For] people in Taiwan, for now at least, life carries on as usual,” wrote Brian Hioe, one of the founding editors of Taiwan’s New Bloom Magazine. “Such is the nature of living in a nation that has long been seen as a geopolitical pawn. What the Taiwanese actually want, or how we feel, is eclipsed by the ‘great power’ showdown on our doorstep.” At Popula, Hioe wrote that the omission of Taiwanese perspectives cedes space to dangerous, escalatory narratives pushed by hawkish outsiders:

People need to hear about Taiwanese perspectives. I believe it’s dangerous for such misleading perceptions of Taiwan to circulate through major international media outlets. Imagining that Taiwan is on the verge of conflict and that there is panic in the streets itself escalates the odds of conflict.

The gravest danger is in misinformation and disinformation, and how quickly twisted narratives can form. State actors aren’t creating narratives from nothing; they can easily harvest organic narratives, panics and rumors that develop on the Internet, especially on social media. So, it’s important to intervene quickly. [Source]

At CNN, Taiwanese-American journalist Clarissa Wei argued that the Western disconnect from Taiwanese realities is patronizing, and inadvertently bolsters Chinese state propaganda:

But what’s most frustrating about the reaction to Pelosi’s visit is not the prophetic declaration of imminent doom, but the expectation of fear and the surprise that follows when people realize that we aren’t all panicking in Taiwan — as if the calm we exude in light of unprecedented threats is a symptom of our ignorance of the facts before us.

[…] If anything, I resent the seemingly performative panic that is expected of the people of Taiwan as we try our best to live our normal lives. Because if the world truly cares about the well-being of Taiwan, then give us a seat at the table.

[…] Pelosi’s visit is a very welcome gesture of solidarity, but the hyperbolic alarms sounding off as a result of her visit only play to China’s advantage and support the illusion that Taiwan is not a democratic country with its own laws and borders. Many are criticizing Pelosi’s visit as upsetting the delicate balance of geopolitics, but lawmakers have every right to visit the island and have done so many times in the past, despite Chinese ire.

[…] Taiwan has never in its history been ruled by the People’s Republic of China, and amplifying China’s insistence on unification and its tantrums sets a terrible precedent. The Chinese government alone is responsible for the heightened tensions, and the subdued calm of the people of Taiwan compared with the violent rhetoric pushed by the Chinese state is a metaphor for that. [Source]

Instead of analyzing Taiwan solely in a Chinese context, the world should strive to see Taiwan on its own terms, many Taiwanese commentators argued. Underscoring this point was the celebration of Taiwan’s Indigenous People’s Day on August 1, the day before Pelosi’s visit—a reminder to  both Presidents Xi Jinping and Tsai Ing-wen that their political pursuits should reckon with the rightful claims of Taiwan’s original inhabitants. This week in Hyphen, Karissa Chen shared a roundtable discussion on Taiwanese identity and representation in Western media with a group of Taiwainese-American thinkers, writers and journalists. The participants described how Taiwan could be covered more responsibly and how Taiwanese identity has blossomed without being a foil to China:

Michelle Kuo, author of Reading with Patrick and visiting professor at National Taiwan University in law: 

If you pitch an editor in Western media about Taiwan, chances are high that they want the story to center China. While the mainstream media has increased its coverage of Taiwan, it’s mostly in regard to Taiwan being under threat from China. Descriptions of Taiwanese identity tend to focus on its emergence as an “anti-Chinese” identity rather than democratic processes through which that self-conception emerges. There are other fascinating nodes through which Taiwanese identity — and more broadly a democratic, anti-authoritarian spirit — is birthed. Among these are advocacy for migrant workers, environmental justice, indigenous rights, death penalty abolition, LGBTQ rights, disability rights, feminism, arts and music. Yes, the PRC’s aggression plays a big role in consolidating anticolonial identity. But a more textured approach would look at how Taiwanese identity emerges through the exercise of political and aesthetic freedom in domestic civil society.

[…] James Lin, assistant professor of international studies at University of Washington: 

Taiwan is a place with lots of things going on domestically that are both unique to Taiwan but also reflective of shared burdens and anxieties shared by societies across the world: LGBTQ equality and rights, a diverse history (and marginalization) of Indigenous peoples, migrant worker exploitation, changing ideas of race, wage inequality, democratic values and protests, etc. I’m continually surprised by how much of what Taiwan experiences is mirrored in the United States, and also how differences between the two can mean there is much to learn from each other in terms of achieving social justice and equality. [Source]

The Taiwanese government remained tight-lipped during the buildup to Pelosi’s arrival, inviting speculation on whether it even approved of the potential visit. In the Taiwan-focused newsletter A Broad and Ample Road, Albert Wu and Michelle Kuo interpreted this silence as contempt for a geopolitical game Taiwan was not invited to play, and offered more inspiring alternatives for American engagement

For our part, we think the relative silence about Pelosi’s visit is an expression of contempt, a condemnation of the silly game these Great Powers are playing. China’s thin skin at the prospect of anyone of international repute visiting Taiwan, or of the Taiwanese making something of themselves on the global stage, is laughable. But equally ridiculous is Pelosi’s and Biden’s song and dance. What does Pelosi intend to achieve with this trip, anyway? She’ll come and give a couple of speeches, wine and dine some fancy people, visit a few high-tech factories, and that’s supposed to … do what besides annoy China?

[…] You know what would really excite people here? Politicians who can envision a radical restructuring of global geopolitics and commit to Taiwan’s place therein. Of course, we understand that increasing Chinese belligerence is the major factor driving tensions here, but this doesn’t preclude the possibility of more creative thinking among the American foreign policy establishment. Imagine if an American politician of consequence came to Taiwan and spoke openly about restructuring the UN to give more power to smaller nations by eliminating the veto power on the Security Council—which would constrain, as Sam Moyn argues, all of the Great Powers from acting recklessly on the world stage. This would give more power to assembly members and put a greater burden on Taiwan to find allies among member states.

[… W]e yearn for American politicians who at the very least want more than to just turn the clock back forty years and perpetuate the us-vs.-them rhetoric they know too well. Well, we can dream. Until that dream comes true, we’ll stay silent, recognizing the poison pill being offered by withholding our consent. [Source]

In a ChinaFile conversation, Seton Hall University law professor Margaret Lewis suggested ways that the U.S. could elevate Taiwnese voices in its policy debates:

I worry that Taiwan’s role is often relegated to passive object in a center-stage story of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. needs to cultivate a deep bench of Taiwan expertise that can bring texture to policy debates. Strengthening the already robust Taiwan Fulbright Program, increasing expertise across all three branches of the U.S. government through the proposed Taiwan Fellowship Program, and supporting Taiwan studies programs at more than the current handful of U.S. universities are all concrete steps to change this. [Source]

As for Speaker Pelosi’s domestic reception in Taiwan, legislators from across the political spectrum publicly welcomed her, and the government presented her with state honors. At Songshan Airport, hundreds of people assembled to watch her plane’s arrival, and outside her hotel, crowds gathered to see her. A small group of counterprosters gathered, as well, with some questionable signs: 

Others in or from Taiwan shared their reactions to Pelosi’s visit on Twitter:

At The Washington Post, Yao-Yuan Yeh, Fang-Yu Chen, Austin Horng-En Wang, and Charles K.S. Wu shared public opinion research showing that Pelosi’s visit would likely reassure the Taiwanese people and increase their approval of President Tsai and U.S. policy

We conducted an online survey with 1,500 Taiwanese participants, designed by Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research and implemented by the Election Study Center at National Chengchi University, Taipei (INDSR 2021Q2). The survey polled 1,100 respondents before the U.S. senators’ visit and 400 afterward. Our survey found that the June 2021 visit significantly increased respondents’ confidence in Taiwan’s military. Moreover, we found that the effects hold across different political groups, which suggests the impact of the visit by the U.S. senators wasn’t the result of partisanship or nationalism within the survey sample.

Our ongoing research also indicates that a visit from a stronger country’s leader is likely to push the smaller partner’s public to be more supportive of the great power’s preferred security policy — and, in this case, boosting support for the Taiwan’s defense budget or strengthening Taiwan’s self-defense capacity to share the U.S. security burden. And the Taiwanese public may also be more supportive of the incumbent government and its ability to implement the U.S. preferred security policy.

[…] Most of the respondents [from a separate October 2021 opinion poll] were optimistic that China will refrain from aggression — only 28 percent said they think China will attack Taiwan, while more than 64 percent felt that military aggression is unlikely. This confidence probably stems from experience. The Taiwanese people have been exposed to such threats from China for 70 years, but the island itself has never come under direct attack. [Source]


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