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Taiwan: could public opinion in China bring war a step closer?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 20/11/2021 Jun Mai
The Chinese military has been sending an increasing number of jets into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Photo: AP The Chinese military has been sending an increasing number of jets into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Photo: AP

As discussions about a possible war to reunite mainland China with Taiwan gained traction among warmongering Chinese patriots, Liu Yadong, a journalism professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, reposted an article that mocked the initial passion among some Europeans for World War I.

Published in early November, the article ended by calling the past 100 years "the bloodiest century the human race has ever seen" and saying that attitudes around the world towards war had become more pacifist.

"Too many lives have been lost in the two world wars," it said.

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Although not written by Liu himself, the article left Liu under fire from nationalistic bloggers in China. "These so-called anti-war (opinion leaders) are mostly running dogs of Western values," one blogger said on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter. When contacted, Liu, through his assistant, declined to comment.

The row was one of the many that have erupted online in recent months over whether Beijing, which views self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province, would be justified in going to war to bring the island into its fold.

This year alone, the People's Liberation Army's constant flights into Taiwan's air defence identification zone have several times involved record-high numbers of warplanes - reaching 56 in one day on October 4, according to Taiwan's defence ministry.

Days later, Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a political meeting in Beijing that the Taiwan issue would be resolved as national rejuvenation became a reality, although he still talked about "peaceful" reunification.

Public speculation about a potential war grew further in early November after the Ministry of Commerce published a routine notice urging households to stock up on daily necessities and local authorities to stabilise food prices for the winter. The notice sparked a brief period of panic buying in a few Chinese cities, prompting the government to spend days reassuring a jittery public.

On November 1, the day of the notice, there were more than 250,000 searches for the word "Taiwan", up more than fourfold from the day before, according to Baidu, the Chinese language search engine used most in China. Searches for "war" jumped 25 times from the day before.

Searches such as those soon subsided, but the issue lingered for many. When one types "yao", meaning "will", in the Baidu search bar, the top suggested search is "will there be a war?"

Although such sentiments have existed for decades, the recent spike in the debate's intensity is largely a result of Beijing's own state messaging, said Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University.

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"There are heavy restrictions on the internet, so there are few voices against a war and those supportive of it are getting more radical," he said.

"The planes dispatched by Beijing to Taiwan, and the hawkish comments by government spokespersons here, also led some to believe that a war was imminent."

But Gu argued that most of the middle class and intellectual elites remained cool-headed about a war. He also said Beijing was mindful of the potential economic impact of the public's expectation of a war, through their consumption and investing choices, and would manage that if necessary.

China's foreign affairs and defence ministries have repeatedly warned Taipei and Washington about the Taiwan issue, warning them against "underestimating China's resolve in defending its sovereignty".

The Chinese military's public statements about its drills near Taiwan have made explicit their aim of deterring moves towards Taiwanese independence, shifting away from the previous line that "no third party was targeted".

Liu Junchuan, deputy head of Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, said last month that after reunification, Taiwan's government revenue would be spent mostly on social welfare.

Across Chinese social media, ultranationalists emboldened by official rhetoric have called for an imminent strike to quash perceived provocation from Taipei and Washington.

As of this week, a Weibo discussion page titled "unification by force" had recorded close to 2.3 billion views of its roughly 40,000 posts.

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Calls for caution have become rarer and more subdued. Journalist Gu Wanming, of state-run Xinhua, said via his personal WeChat account that an imminent war over Taiwan would undermine China's interests and help China hawks in the US to weaken the country's capacity to compete with the US in the long run.

Some have also circulated a 2001 article by General Liu Yazhou, reflecting on Beijing's failed 1949 attempt to take Quemoy - the Taiwanese-controlled island off the mainland coast, also called Kinmen - from the Nationalists, who that year retreated to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war. Now retired, Liu attributed the outcome mostly to underestimating the other side's resistance.

Despite the apparent intensity of discussion, Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre think tank in Washington, said the public's voices would carry little weight in Beijing's decision-making.

"The discussion about unification by force exists because Beijing allows for it," Sun said. "But the determining factor of whether to use force on Taiwan is not really about public opinion - it's about whether Beijing can succeed, and do so at a relatively low cost."

Sun added that Beijing's existing strategy appeared to be aimed at achieving unification through coercion and intimidation of Taipei. "Public opinion - hence the heightened talk about use of force - is part of that strategy," she said.

But Ren Yi, one of China's most influential bloggers about public affairs, argued that encouraging public discussion was helping Beijing to shift public expectation.

"In China, the public expectation about a war is changing gradually due to many influences," he wrote in a blog published in early November, using his alias Chairman Rabbit. "In the old days, reunification by force was an unthinkable idea; now it is becoming normalised."

Timeline: Taiwan's relations with mainland China under Tsai Ing-wen

A graduate of Harvard University's public policy school, Ren has a sizeable following, including among government officials. His Taiwan article, published on WeChat, was viewed more than 100,000 times.

He argued that public discussion could be used to prepare the way for a change in strategy.

"Once the use of force has become inevitable, people will be prepared for it since intense discussions have already taken place," Ren wrote.

But stoking nationalism can backfire, said Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor in global communication at Georgia State University.

"I think such online discussions can be helpful for Beijing in instigating a more unified national identity that is grounded in the leadership of the Communist Party," she said.

"At the same time, nationalism is always a double-edged sword. If not contained, it can also translate into critiquing the regime if it fails to satisfy the demands of nationalistic public opinion. Such nationalistic spikes also leave less space for diplomatic solutions."

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