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China Censors Discussion of Lai Ching-Te’s Inauguration, Plays Down Taiwan Protests
China Censors Discussion of Lai Ching-Te's Inauguration, Plays Down Taiwan Protests

China Censors Discussion of Lai Ching-Te’s Inauguration, Plays Down Taiwan Protests

On Monday, May 20, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party was inaugurated the president of Taiwan. Lai’s election in January was met with dismay by the Chinese government, which views Lai and the DPP as separatist elements. The PRC spent at least tens of millions of dollars attempting to sway Taiwan’s election away from the DPP, and then claimed that the general election was unrepresentative of “mainstream public opinion on the island,” a claim widely mocked on the Chinese internet. The PRC also heavily censored discussion of the election and its outcome on social media, blocking the Weibo hashtags “Taiwan election,” “Taiwan general election,” “2024 Taiwan general election,” as well as “frozen garlic,” a homophone for “get elected” in a dialect widely spoken in Taiwan that has become a stock chant at political rallies. Lai Ching-te’s inauguration has spurred a new wave of censorship. Using a tool created by Citizen Lab, CDT Chinese identified censorship of several related combinations of terms in searches across Baidu, Sogou, and Weibo: 

• “Republic” + “16th-term” + “President”
• “Inauguration” + “President Lai”
• “Hsiao Bi-khim” + “Inauguration”
• “Speech” + “Lai Ting-che”
• “Taiwan” + “China” + “Gobble Up”
• “People’s Republic of China” +  “not subordinate to each other” + “Republic of China”
• “May 20th” + “Republic” [Chinese]

To learn more about how these censorship rules were discovered, see the Citizen Lab report Missing Links: A comparison of search censorship in China.

In his inaugural address, Lai asserted: “We have a nation insofar as we have sovereignty […] The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.” The speech raised hackles in China. State media headlines blared: “’Lai-style Taiwan independence’ agenda is a dead-end,” in Global Times; “Lai Ching-te’s treacherous gambit is doomed to backfire,” in China Daily; and “Lai’s address escalates tension across Taiwan Strait,” in Xinhua. People’s Daily, the Party’s flagship newspaper, dedicated an entire page to criticism of Lai’s speech. A host of headlines accused Lai of destroying stability in the strait and claimed international support for China’s One China Principle—which in fact differs markedly from the One China Policy observed by the United States, as well as from many other countries’ positions. 

Within Taiwan, Lai’s speech was also moderately controversial and seen as a major departure from his predecessor Tsai Ying-wen’s less confrontational approach to China-relations. At The Financial Times, Katherin Hille:

“Lai’s stance is a step back towards more confrontation, undoing much of Tsai’s line,” says Chao Chun-shan, a Taiwan academic who advised Tsai and her three predecessors on China policy. He argues that it puts China’s leader Xi Jinping in a difficult spot. “Xi doesn’t want a showdown now, before the result of the US election is clear.”

[…] So while Tsai would refer to the “Beijing authorities” or “the other side of the Strait” — phrases that do not highlight the existence of two different countries — Lai spoke of “China” throughout.

[…] DPP politicians argue Taiwan has been left with little choice. “China keeps removing the space for ambiguity,” says Chiu Tai-san, chair of the cabinet-level China policy body under Tsai. “So the more ambiguous we are about our sovereignty, the more ground we will lose.” [Source]

Not all agreed that Lai’s speech was a sea-change in Taiwan’s China policy. At The Council on Foreign Relations, Rush Doshi and David Sacks argued that Lai’s speech was mostly a reiteration of previous cross-strait policy and that it included important reassurances for Beijing: 

In his address, Lai regularly returned to the language of continuity and stability. “Peace is the only option,” he stressed, “and prosperity, gained through lasting peace and stability, is our objective.” Lai called Taiwan’s leaders “pilots for peace” and indicated he would “neither yield nor provoke” and would instead “maintain the status quo.” Elsewhere in his speech, Lai spoke of providing “stable and principled cross-strait leadership.” Such reassurances are important given Lai’s 2017 statement that he was a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” and questions in Beijing about his intentions. 

To that end, Lai mentioned the “Republic of China” over a dozen times – more than Tsai did in her last inaugural address – and pledged to lead “in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution system.” Beijing took exception to Lai’s statement that “the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other.” That phrase has not appeared in an inaugural address before, though it was a formulation Tsai previously included in high-level speeches, and likely does not indicate any change in policy. [Source]

Lai’s inauguration banquet also included a subtle nod to Xi Jinping, according to Clarrisa Wei writing for Foreign Policy: 

Then the unexpected happened. As the seventh course arrived, the room suddenly erupted in cheers. “Bubble tea!” Kuo exclaimed. Servers carried in shrimp rice and the iconic Taiwanese beverage, sourced directly from two popular eateries in Tainan. It was essentially takeout on a plate—a jolting deviation from the intricately composed dishes that preceded it. The bubble tea, which came with fat black straws, looked almost cartoonish.

A special request from the president-elect, the course was rumored by the team to be a nod to Chinese President Xi Jinping. In a television interview last summer, Lai said that if he ever had the opportunity to dine with Xi in Taiwan, he’d order shrimp rice and a cup of bubble tea. For dessert, we finished off with a fruit popsicle dipped in a citrus-forward marmalade, surrounded by mango, pineapple, melon, and wax apple—all sourced from Taiwanese farmers.

After the tasting, I asked Lee Hou-ching, the secretary-general of the nongovernmental organization in charge of planning the banquet, about the official reason for the seventh course. He demurred. “Tainan is known as a food city,” he said. “Lai wanted to represent Tainan with a dish appropriate for a banquet.” [Source]

Bubble tea is a variation of milk tea, which became a symbol of solidarity between pro-democracy activists in Taiwan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Myanmar after the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance went viral in 2020.

Lai’s first day in office was marked by massive protests against a controversial bill introduced to parliament by the two leading opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), that would dramatically increase the power of parliament at the expense of the presidency. (Although Lai won the presidency in January’s elections, his party lost its majority in the legislature, setting the two branches of government at odds.)

Chinese state media has remained mostly circumspect on the protests, but Xinhua wrote a short report on a separate protest organized by the TPP in front of the DPP’s headquarters in Taipei during which losing TPP presidential candidate Ko Wen-je claimed, “The DPP is the biggest criminal syndicate.” Global Times also covered the protest, framing it as a condemnation of “Green Terror” against “pro-reunification activists.” A search for “Taiwan + Protest” returned nearly no results on Weibo, an indication that censors are likely suppressing footage and commentary on the multi-day protests against the DPP and KMT attended by tens of thousands.