Beijing is again showing its revulsion of its neighbour, Taiwan. GAP has withdrawn an ‘incorrect’ t-shirt, airlines have revised ‘incorrect’ sites. The West will feel the pressure more often, the Taiwanese Ambassador in the Netherlands expects. More than four million Chinese tourists used to visit Taiwan every year. Until the people of the island decided that politician Tsai Ing-wen should govern them in 2016. Since then, the number of visitors from the mainland has halved. Hotel and restaurant owners who had invested heavily in expansion could toss their profit projections out of the window.
‘China does not really like our president,’ says Taiwan’s ambassador, Tom Chou, in an interview with Financieele Dagblad. After taking office Tsai wanted to maintain the stable relationship with Beijing, but she refused to confirm the so-called ‘1992 consensus’, the view that there is one China, with each side having its own interpretation of it. Even the insinuation that Taiwan could become an independent country is unacceptable to Beijing. ‘Taiwan was suddenly no longer so popular with Chinese tourists,’ says Chou. For the Dutch it has been clear since the 1980s how touchy a subject Taiwan is. The Hague gave the RSV shipyard an export permit for the sale of submarines to Taiwan, but Beijing was angered. The ensuing diplomatic row severely affected trade relations. But whereas 35 years ago China was scarcely relevant in economic terms, it is now the world’s second-largest economy and, quite apart from the trade, has also become closely interlinked with the West in political and cultural terms.
The country, which wants little to do with democracy and diversity, clashes with Western values increasingly often. Take, for example, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. Beijing promptly imposed economic sanctions on Norway. ‘It is pressure that we have been living with for 70 years,’ says Chou. ‘But you will soon also feel that sharp power of China in all its severity.’ With this remark, the Ambassador is referring to the concept of ‘sharp power’, a term coined last year by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig of the American think tank, the National Endowment for Democracy. Authoritarian regimes use sharp power to manipulate and steer international opinion, relying on subversion, intimidation and coercion. The traditional distinction that political scientists like to make between ‘soft’ (setting a good example) and ‘hard’ power (coercion) no longer captures the concept, according to the term’s inventors.
China, and Russia, have spent billions in recent years to expand their influence in the world via the ‘soft’ method, by issuing visas, establishing colleges and campuses and starting English-language television stations and think tanks. But they have not captured international ‘heart and minds’, so now, usually via the same channels, use censorship, diversion and certainly also the dissemination of disinformation. ‘They are trying to undermine the West in such a way that they will follow China’s rules of their own accord,’ says Chou. The ambassador sees that self-censorship in the World Health Organisation (WHO), which, according to him, refused a donation from Taiwan for the fight against ebola because it would offend China. Last week China blocked Taiwan’s attendance at the WHO’s annual conference in Geneva for the second consecutive year. In Europe there is the example of Greece’s veto of an EU statement on human rights in China, which occurred not long after a Chinese investment in the port of Piraeus had been finalised.
The self-censorship is already widespread at corporate level. Multinationals in particular are scared of stepping on Beijing’s toes. The clothing company GAP apologised last week for the sale of a t-shirt with an ‘incorrect’ map of China, without Tibet and Taiwan. Gap took the item off the shelves accompanied by a statement that ‘Gap Inc. respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China’. If companies do not automatically follow China’s wishes, Beijing is willing to explicitly instruct them, says Chou. International airlines came under pressure earlier this month to stop referring to Taiwan as a ‘country’ on their websites. This Chinese pressure is starting to cause annoyance. The instruction to airlines prompted the White House to call on Beijing to end ‘this Orwellian nonsense’. Washington grumbled about a growing trend of the Chinese Communist Party trying to impose its political ideas on American citizens and companies.
Strengthened by these expressions of support, Taiwan’s Prime Minister William Lai decided last month to declare himself ‘a political worker for Taiwanese independence’. Beijing responded to this with bomber planes flying around the island and announcing naval exercises. In other words, hard power where sharp power is not enough. The Ambassador shrugs his shoulders at this. Taiwan is accustomed to a lot. At the same time, he admits that his country has become overly dependent on the Chinese market. He warmly supports Tsais’ policy initiative to diversify trade towards south-east Asia and away from China, and the proposed increase in military spending.