Discourse and Disinformation in the Pelosi Visit and Its Aftermath

Written by Brian Hioe.

Image credit: 08.03 總統接見美國聯邦眾議院議長裴洛西訪團一行 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

The advisability versus inadvisability of Pelosi’s visit was recently much debated in international media. Some US politicians, particularly Republicans hawkish on policy, argued that the US would look weak in front of China if Pelosi did not visit. Pelosi, for her part, played up the bipartisan nature of the visit. But on the other hand, many other voices criticised the visit as reckless, given the potential to provoke the Chinese government into some sort of retaliatory action.

This happened with the Chinese government announcing live-fire drills shortly after Pelosi touched down. China, as well as Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, framed these drills as a blockade. Apart from affecting ships and planes, the Chinese government fired missiles over Taiwan, some of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Though this could have been an accident, it is unclear why the Chinese government also sought to embroil Japan into tensions regarding the Pelosi visit. Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida criticised China’s response to the Pelosi visit. China also announced naval exercises in the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea near South Korea. 

Nevertheless, one notes that reactions from the international world could have impacted the Chinese response to the visit. Namely, with global commentators acting as though the visit could precipitate a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or the outbreak of World War III, this strengthened the onus on China to respond strongly to the Pelosi visit.

The odds, of course, of a Chinese invasion precipitated by the Pelosi visit, are unrealistic. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could not occur at the drop of a hat but would be telegraphed in advance with troop movements. Troops would be detected amassing on Chinese coasts. Likewise, there are still fundamental questions about whether China has the lift capacity needed to transport a sufficient number of troops over the Taiwan Straits to mount a long-term occupation.

But, with such hyperbolic warnings, the Chinese government could not have a weak response to the visit—otherwise, it would come off as worthless. More broadly, tensions between the US and China in the Asia Pacific continue to be magnified by both countries seeing it as imperative to not seem weak in front of the others. Yet, in this way, global commentary on the potential outcomes of Pelosi’s event perhaps influenced the outcome–possibly proving a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Indeed, the framing of the Pelosi visit more or less had the trappings of a state diplomatic visit, despite discussion ahead of time about whether she would be visiting in a personal capacity. Perhaps, seeing as the discussion of the visit was already extremely high-profile, there was no point in trying to pretend otherwise. Yet to this extent, the Tsai administration rolling out the red carpet for American politicians that were not representatives of the government in any capacity–such as lighting up Taipei 101 with a message of welcome for Mike Pompeo–may have made it necessary to hold a high-level and very public welcome for Pelosi.

To this extent, there was a pattern of leaks throughout the visit. No escalation would probably have occurred if not for the initial leak reported by the Financial Times

Namely, it has been more common for visits to Taiwan by US politicians to be announced only after they are already present in Taiwan since the Biden administration took office. This would be a way of showing that the visits were more substantive in supporting Taiwan rather than ways to quickly hit back at China–as such visits often had the role of under the Trump administration. At the same time, with some suggesting that the impact of Pelosi’s visit was primarily symbolic or aimed at bolstering the Democrats’ credentials as strong on China before elections, this is a way in which Pelosi’s visit may have actually had a similar aim to Trump administration diplomatic visits.

If there had been no leak and no subsequent discussion of the visit in a high-pitched tenor, perhaps there would not have been such escalation to the point that it became debated if Taiwan was seeing a “Fourth Taiwan Straits Crisis.”

Another leak that emerged during the Pelosi visit was published in the China Times, alleging that Taiwan had tried to withdraw its invitation to Pelosi but that she was still insistent on visiting Taiwan. The China Times has a questionable record because it has been reported on by the Financial Times and Apple Daily as seeking approval from China’s Taiwan Affairs Office to run articles and accepting funding from the Chinese government. Yet while the leak did not gain traction, one notes the series of high-profile leaks during the visit, pointing to a pattern of leaks on Taiwan-related matters from the Taiwanese and/or US governments.

Otherwise, one notes various efforts at disinformation during the course of the Pelosi visit. This included claims that the Tsai administration paid Pelosi 94 million NT to visit, riffing off of previous reports that Mike Pompeo was paid 150,000 USD to visit Taiwan. The PTT account where the reports originated from was later found to have been stolen from the original user. Attempts at disinformation also tried to sow discord, such as reports that the Chinese government had begun evacuating Chinese nationals from Taiwan. Online forum PTT also saw an influx of suspicious accounts that posted pro-China messages during the Pelosi visit.

During China’s live-fire drilling, Chinese state-run media outlet Xinhua News released photos showing Chinese vessels close enough to Taiwan that the shore is visible. However, questions were later raised about the veracity of these photos.

More generally, while several organisations in Taiwan are devoted to fact-checking and combating disinformation, these primarily focus on targeting disinformation that circulates within Taiwan, which aims to affect domestic politics. There is less focus by such organisations on disinformation that spreads about Taiwan in the English-language sphere. Taiwanese generally read news and international discourse about their country in Chinese rather than English, so they may not be aware of disinformation circulating globally about Taiwan. At the same time, the English language world may not be able to verify information circulating in Chinese due to lacking language ability. Perhaps more translingual fact-checking practices must be developed to cope with this issue. This may be the corollary to increased discussion to the fact that the voices of Taiwanese have been left out of international media reporting on the Pelosi visit and military drills that followed.

Brian Hioe was one of the founding editors of New Bloom. He is a freelance writer on social movements and politics, and occasional translator.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “US-Taiwan-China: What’s next?”.

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