How the digital age changed Taiwan

Social media has changed Taiwan’s politics, and its international standing

Mark Harrison

Government and governance, International relations, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

18 February 2016

The global media landscape has been transformed by social media, blogs and mobile communications, and Taiwan is a major beneficiary, Mark Harrison writes.

In early 2005 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation screened a notorious episode of its flagship international affairs television program Foreign Correspondent called “Dire Straits”, about Taiwan and its then Democratic Progressive Party president, Chen Shui-bian.

Chen had been returned to office for a second term the year before in a bitterly-fought election; there was an attempt on his life in the final days of the campaign.

The Foreign Correspondent program offered a traduced assessment of Taiwan’s politics and international circumstances. It gave credence to ludicrous conspiracy theories from Taiwan’s political far right about the assassination attempt against Chen. It warned of the risk of military action against Taiwan by China, but laid the responsibility for conflict solely in the hands of Taiwan’s president: “This is the man who may determine if there’s war or peace,” said the voiceover. In showing Chen on a tour of the Solomon Islands, because “every other country has chosen to recognise mainland China”, it contrasted the size of the presidential delegation with Taiwan’s “tiny ally”.

The program also took an ideological position on a century of debate by the Taiwanese about their political and cultural identity by describing Taiwan as “quintessentially Chinese”. It elided the Taiwanese political aspirations for self-determination, which date from the 1910s and the Japanese colonial era, with the story of Chiang Kai-shek and the retreat of the Chinese Nationalists to Taiwan in 1949. It then placed this history against the background of the obvious and unassailable international status of the People’s Republic of China, essentially de-legitimising Taiwan as a democratic polity and deprecating the island story of its people.

At the time, the Foreign Correspondent program was an extreme instance of the lack of depth and the preconceptions that the international media brought to covering Taiwan. Under Ma Ying-jeou’s KMT government from 2008-2016, Taiwan attracted much less international media attention, except for reports on improving relations with mainland China through cross-straits economic and administrative agreements and high level meetings.

During those years, however, the global media landscape was transformed by the key enabling technologies of social media, online content management and mobile communications.

From the early 2010s in Taiwan, student activists began deploying these communications tools to create new political practices. They undertook a series of protest movements against the Ma government over media ownership, urban development and cross-Straits relations that culminated in the Sunflower Movement of 2014, when several hundred university students occupied the legislative assembly over democratic oversight of the Cross-Straits Trade in Services Agreement. From inside the legislative chamber, they used social media with such sophistication that they were able to circumvent Taiwan’s traditional news media and create an alternative public sphere across Taiwan and globally.

More on this: China and Taiwan: Building bridges, or a bridge too far?

The student movements helped voice public concerns about Taiwanese government policies and eroded support for Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT. From 2014, the Democratic Progressive Party and its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, took an unassailable lead in election polling. The party political effects of student activism were one of the factors in the DPP’s landslide wins in the elections on January 16, when Tsai Ing-wen took nearly double the number of votes over her KMT rival Eric Chu, and the DPP achieved an absolute majority in the legislative assembly for the first time.

The transformation of Taiwan’s politics by social media and new communications technology is the subject of analysis and academic research. What has received less attention is that these same innovations have also changed Taiwan’s international situation.

Since the late 2000s, a countless multitude of websites, blogs and online forums have proliferated, and created a new field for global public discourse that is distinct from that of international media organisations.

Enabled by the Internet and its many distribution platforms, ideas and information move through this field with distinct structures of legitimisation and unencumbered by the received views of the traditional news media. The institutional boundaries that defined old media, such as between academia and journalism, have been blurred as numerous academic research groups have created an online presence to reach a public audience. This new global public discourse intersects with the nodes of “influencers” and “thought-leaders” in rapidly changing networks of global corporate and political power – including bringing a much more detailed and informed understanding of Taiwan.

Some of this activity is ideologically aligned to the DPP, or to the KMT. Some speaks for Taiwan’s autonomy and democracy against mainland China’s authoritarianism, and some for a trajectory of cross-Straits relations in which the two sides are drawing closer together. Some of this work brings the complex and violent history of Taiwan to the foreground, to understand its current circumstances. All of it is able challenge the unexamined assumptions about Taiwan that have dominated international media reporting, and even some policy-making. These include assuming that the relationship between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists is at the centre of the Taiwan story, that the history of Taiwan as a geo-political issue begins in 1949 with the retreat to Taipei of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, and that Taiwan’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China is the natural resolution of that issue.

The mainstream international media has responded with its own online presence, offering analysis and commentary that mimics the global new media. The high-cost and heavily-produced television and print news material produced by international news providers has become supplementary to the vast amount of words and images distributed via online platforms.

The effects of this new global public discourse has been especially apparent since the election of Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan. The analyses and reporting of Taiwan and of Tsai Ing-wen’s victory has recognised the legitimacy of Taiwan’s democratic process. It has given credence to Taiwan’s identity politics and the contentious public debates about its relationship with mainland China. Reportage even offered sympathetic descriptions of President-elect Tsai’s domestic life with her cats.

The creation of a global discourse on Taiwan has real geopolitical consequences. Taiwan’s international diplomatic space remains constrained, therefore any Taiwanese government that understands that it can be heard internationally will function with less defensiveness. Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP will start their time in government with an international media that is better informed than the last time the DPP were in government, and this is one element of a stronger basis for regional security and stability.

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