Imagining a Tragedy in Cyberspace: Online Postings after the Death of an Undocumented Migrant Worker

Written by Isabelle Cheng.

Image credit: Cyberspace by Cyber-Andi/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0

On 31 August 2017, Nguyen Quoc Phi, an undocumented Vietnamese worker, was shot dead by a policeman in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan. Public responses to Phi’s death were polarised between pro-police campaigners, who supported the police’s use of force, and human rights activists, who emphasised the plight of migrant workers who are exploited by brokers and employers and who are regulated by a hostile guest worker system. This polarisation is also evident in cyberspace. The reporting of Phi’s death in September 2017, the sentencing of the policeman in July 2019, and the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in the U.S. in May and June 2020 prompted Taiwanese netizens to comment on PTT. This is a public online forum in Taiwan that is likened to Reddit in the U.S. Without entering PTT as a registered user, one can search Phi’s full name in Chinese characters on Google and, in mid-November 2020, such a search brought up a total of 2,893 posts in 37 different groups of discussions posted on PTT. Dated between 5 September 2017 and 5 July 2020, 2,300 comments were posted on Gossiping, which made Gossiping the most popular board to comment on Phi’s death.

Before engaging with these posts, we need to understand the modus operandi of posting on PTT. After registration, users are only shown by their accounts composed of letters and numbers, which renders them anonymous. In anonymity, users solicit responses from fellow users by initiating questions, posting comments or pasting news reports (providing the news URLs without editing the news text). It is known that users browse and post on PTT ‘for fun’ with the mentality of ‘not taking it seriously’ (renzhen jiushule, 認真就輸了). This, together with anonymity, and the desire to boost popularity and shape public opinion), tends to encourage emotional, sensational, provocative, aggressive or extreme posts. This is particularly regarding those appearing on Gossiping, the ‘hottest’ board on PTT. When seen in their use of ‘Ghost Island’ (gueidao, 鬼島), a popular neologism that mocks Taiwan as a disappointing homeland, PTT users on the Gossiping Board are characterised as forming an ‘affective community,’ who share a unique ‘loser aesthetics’ which espouses their criticism of injustice and stagnating social mobility when compared to socio-economic elites. Nevertheless, they also symbiotically express their pride in Taiwan’s democracy and freedom when juxtaposing themselves with China. Engaging with this ‘affective community,’ we can try to identify key themes emerging from the 1,052 postings in 2017, 786 of which appeared on Gossiping, where migrant workers are perceived as the inferior racial other, and the police were projected as vulnerable to realpolitik that renders neither protection nor dignity for the force.

In these free-wheeling expressions, Phi was the epicentre. Phi was referred to as a ‘runaway’ (taopao wailao, 逃跑外勞) and ‘runaways’ were believed to be violent, particularly in the case of Vietnamese men, who were said to have formed gangs in Taiwan. Phi was described as a gangster, a drug addict, a crazy and dangerous offender who could not be suppressed by pepper spray and baton, who caused harm to a Civil Defence Corps member and who intended to grab a police car. These criminal acts justified the police’s use of firearms, which was said to be proportionate to the potential danger posed by Phi to the police and the public. A comment that was re-tweeted only once referred to Phi as a ‘Captain of Platoon 19 of the Vietnamese Special Forces during the presidency of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.’ Phi was too young to be born before the unification of Vietnam in 1975, but this mention seemed to lead another user to repeat that Phi was an ex-military man.

The news posted by users mentioned that human rights activists protested at the Police Administration demanding truth and justice. Bashing human rights groups was common amongst these posts. Human rights activist were referred to as ‘rubbish,’ ‘poisonous warts,’ a ‘source of social chaos’ or the ‘fans of foreign workers.’ They were said to dismiss the idea that the police’s lives matter (jincha de min yeshi min, 警察的命也是命). A deep distrust was found in the judicial system of Taiwan, or specifically in the rulings of judges. Ridiculed as ‘dinosaurs,’ judges are seen as a privileged class out of touch with everyday reality. Mocked as approaching the issue of the police’s use of firearms ‘from the perspective of God’ (zhanzai shangdi de shijiao, 站在上帝的視角), judges were portrayed as not supporting the police and, as a result, would sentence the police to jail for unjustified use of force. Distrust was also found towards the government, which was portrayed as prioritising migrant workers’ rights at the expense of the rights of its own police force. For users who seemed to be in the police, disrespect was shown for their commanding officers. The latter were portrayed as only interested in self-preservation when the actions of frontline officers became the centre of controversy. Emerging from these emotional outpourings was the call to establish a police union to assert their rights and defend their dignity.

Amid these comments, Phi was othered, or as a user commented, Phi’s death seemed to be a case of racism. Phi and his fellow migrant workers from Southeast Asia were set in a racial context where ‘foreign workers in Taiwan are like black people in the U.S..’ Examples of subjecting them to explicit racialisation are far too obscene and vulgar to be mentioned here. Racialisation was contextualised in the belief that the U.S. police enjoy the freedom to use the firearms at their disposal. It was believed that attacking the police, such as throwing stones at the police (as Phi did before and after he had been shot at) or causing a threat to the police’s life would meet the U.S. police’s immediate and forceful response to the degree of ‘shooting you to a pulp.’ In such scenarios, users tended to imagine that the police were white and that a white policeman would respond to a black offender or a ‘yellow’ offender differently. Those comments did not go unchallenged, however. Some users called for calm and urged their fellow users to study precedents. By showing videos found on YouTube, they argued for the necessity of understanding the context (whether the force was justified for self-defence or public safety), the level of force (whether it was an abuse of power) and the socio-political consequence (whether shooting led to protests).

In sum, there are two entangled views expressed in explosive emotions. One of them demonised, racialised and criminalised migrant workers; the other defended and supported the police. In between, there were attempts to reason with these sensational views. Concerns were raised about what kind of danger Phi posed to the police: whether the shooting was justifiable and proportionate, whether the police were sufficiently trained to shoot to suppress but not to kill, whether there was footage recorded by the policeman’s bodycam. Finally, there are questions about whether it was the police or the National Immigration Agency (NIA) that was responsible for chasing undocumented workers. A user posted a Public T.V. report about a police officer’s revelations about the police’s insufficient training for shooting, responses to crime scenes, resilience and mental health, as well as the police’s growing workload and the problematic division of labour with the NIA. After this report was posted, another similar report was also shared. Both reports met earnest responses in the form of comments which, though expressed in a cynical tone, seemed to confirm that these were common problems encountered by frontline police officers, who were frustrated by the lack of resources, by the ever-increasing workload, and by the absence of support from their superiors. Interestingly, at the end of the train of comments, a user posted the Police Administration’s web link and invited users to send their inquiries to the police.

How do we approach these posts in a country where the protection of migrant workers’ human rights has become a critical political asset for public diplomacy? Compared to those topics appearing on the PTT’s popularity league table that were followed by more than 100,000 users, the size of users engaging in the discussion is insignificant. Moreover, there is a degree of diversity in their views, as outlined above. Nevertheless, it is hard not to notice the prevailing cynicism, the overt distrust in fairness and transparency, the aggressive masculinity, the excessive othering and the uncritical view of racial hierarchy emerging from these posts. Collectively, as an ‘affective community,’ these users have painted a socio-political landscape that is underlined by its instability. Supposing this affective community shows pride in democracy and freedom when commenting on issues that do not involve migrant workers. In that case, the posts concerning Phi’s death show a significant shortage of trust in, and respect for, democracy and freedom. This is especially the case when users place themselves above inferior migrant others in a class and racial hierarchy. The implications of such political undercurrents may have gone beyond the issue of migration governance. It makes us wonder whether the liberal democracy of Taiwan and the government’s proclaimed commitment to human rights protection are resilient enough to resist this naked racialisation of migrant workers in Taiwan.

Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research interests are marriage and labour migration in East Asia.

This article is part of a special issue on migrant workers.

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