Taiwan and Twiplomacy

Written by Najee J Woods.   

Image Credit: Twitter by GotCredit/ Flickr, Licence:  CC BY 2.0

According to the Observer Research Foundation, Twitter Diplomacy, or Twiplomacy, is the coming together of traditional and digital diplomacy, and Twitter. Twitter is the prime social media network used by Heads of State, government and national political leaders in 187 countries as of 2019, representing 92 per cent of all United Nations nation-states. Heads of State used to rely on traditional media, such as television or newspapers, to convey their political thoughts or announce policies to the masses. By utilising Twitter, this allows a national leader to directly convey their message to the citizens of their respective country, or the global community, in real-time.

The concept of Twiplomacy has enhanced a nation’s ability to conduct diplomacy via social media. If there is a country that has benefited tremendously from utilising Twitter, it would be Taiwan. Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, has been diplomatically isolated since being expelled from the United Nations in the early seventies. With the People’s Republic of China holding key positions at the UN, it has successfully obstructed any attempts by the Taiwanese people to have their voice heard. It could be argued that traditional news has also contributed to the marginalisation of Taiwan. In past practices, journalists from various news outlets adopted a China-centric perspective to report Taiwanese affairs. Samson Ellis (a foreign correspondent) says,  “People assumed, ‘Oh, Taiwan you can cover it from Hong Kong and China,’ but the discovery has been you can’t — or you can, but you cover it badly.”

Since the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-Wen in 2016, the Tsai Administration has utilised Twiplomacy to broaden global recognition for the forgotten nation. A few notable Taiwanese politicians, such as Karen Yu, a former Taiwanese lawmaker, and Freddy Lim, a rock-singer turned lawmaker, both joined Twitter around 2008. Additionally, although President Tsai also created a Twitter in 2010, she stopped using the account in 2014. Taiwanese politicians ceasing to use early Twitter accounts early on isn’t surprising. According to a poll conducted in early 2019, only 24% of Taiwanese have a Twitter account, while Facebook and YouTube are the most popular social media platforms, with 89% and 90% respectively. Taiwanese politicians use Facebook, Line App, and YouTube to communicate with their targeted audience.

However, Taiwanese politicians are slowly gravitating towards Twitter. In 2017, President Tsai visited Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, where the president reinvigorated her Twitter account. According to Alex Huang, who is Spokesperson of the Presidential Office, “The broad role of this is to increase international exposure for the president and Taiwan.” Danielle Cave, a Google Policy Fellow at the Digital Asia Hub, briefly mentioned that Twitter serves as an easy and cost-effective way for Taiwan to connect and engage internationally,

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has also been one of the driving forces behind revamping Taiwan’s diplomatic outreach. Joseph Wu was appointed Foreign Minister in 2018; he believed Twitter is an ideal platform for keeping the global community more informed about the latest developments pertaining to Taiwanese foreign affairs. The MOFA has employed unorthodox, yet unique, mechanisms to communicate with the world. Foreign affairs officials sometimes tweet in different languages for news outlets to further understand Taiwan’s position. MOFA also uses the platform to rebuke the Chinese Communist Party’s false narratives. Minister Wu outright called the CCP “Commie brainwashers” after the People’s Daily referred to Taiwan as a province of China in a tweet about Taiwan legalising marriage equality last year.

Some have criticised MOFA’s use of language in their tweets as uncommon in other countries. Normal countries have the freedom to participate in global affairs without having to face political obstructionism. Minister Wu’s tweets are simply the embodiment of Taiwan’s resilient spirit, refusing to be marginalised by the hands of the CCP. The MOFA’s official Twitter account has now over 92k followers, most notably from news organisations, think-tanks and scholars alike. Joseph Wu’s tweets have appeared in news articles by CNN, BBC, New York Times and other renowned news outlets.

Twiplomacy has become a microphone for the Taiwanese government’s use in responding to major international events. On January 2nd, 2019, in the speech, “Message to the Taiwanese Compatriots”, Chairman Xi Jinping threatens to use military action to annex Taiwan. President Tsai quickly responded to Chairman Xi by posting a series of tweets in English,  emphasising Taiwan’s staunch opposition to the CCP’s neo-expansionist, militaristic, revisionist ambitions. Madame President’s remarks appeared in multiple international media reports, such as the New York Timesthe South China Morning Post, and the Strait Times.   

The on-going Coronavirus outbreak has given the perfect opportunity for the Taiwanese government to showcase its national health care system to the world. President Tsai, along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, all played an essential role in educating the world on the coronavirus situation in Taiwan. MOHW has regularly posted Coronavirus updates and illustrations of dogs advising citizens on proper self-health methods on their twitter feed. President Tsai has posted short videos of her leading government officials to an SME production plant to oversee the mass production of 10 million masks. She also visited a pharmacy in Taipei to showcase the efficiency of steady mask distribution throughout the country.

Twitter has been instrumental for Taiwan digging out of the tunnels of diplomatic isolation. Twitter has become the equivalent to an online megaphone for the international community to hear what the Taiwanese people have to express. Political parties, news organisations and influential Taiwanese politicians are now on twitter, which gives the world community a glimpse of the different viewpoints that make up Taiwanese society. Formosa is no longer the forgotten orphan, as President Tsai and her team have successfully tweeted Taiwan back into the global community where it belongs.

Najee J Woods (葉忠正), a graduate of Wright State University with two bachelor’s degree’s in Political Science and Chinese Studies. He’s currently a writer for American Citizen’s For Taiwan and a member of Formosan Association for Public affairs. This article is part of the special issue on new media.

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