For the last week, I’ve been getting multiple calls from international media outlets, asking me to appear on programs or offer comment. This often happens when big international events involving Taiwan appear on the horizon, such as U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s arrival here on Tuesday. It’s a privilege, I realize, to be considered as a credible source (however much I may question this assessment, when I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast and yet somehow am being asked to comment on international politics.)
Pelosi’s visit marks the first time that a House Speaker has visited Taiwan in 25 years. In response, China announced that it would be conducting military exercises in waters that cross into Taiwan’s territorial waters. That’s the latest twist, anyhow.
At times like these I’ll suddenly get a flurry of panicked phone calls about China’s latest military threat toward Taiwan. But of course, Chinese military threats directed at Taiwan are nothing new—this has been happening for decades. Consequently, the rush of breathless commentary on the military reprisals that might follow from Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan merely represent more of the same to the people who live here. Generally speaking, the mood is calm.
As with previous incidents, international headlines make it appear as though Taiwan is on the verge of precipitating World War III, while internally the same news provokes not even a ripple of panic. This was most visible to me previously when Taiwan saw historic highs of air incursions by Chinese fighter planes, causing the world to flip out about the possibility of war—while within Taiwan itself, the supposed scene of incipient catastrophe, media was far more concerned with sex videos and celebrity gossip, judging by the front pages of even major media outlets.
This, too, has been the case with the Pelosi visit. While much of the world seemed to be thinking that Taiwanese must be freaking out and running into bunkers and the like, I think many were entirely unaware of the visit or its significance until very shortly beforehand. China responded with threats, such as sending naval vessels, which were sighted off the coast of Orchid Island, and blocking imports of Taiwanese food items to pressure Taiwanese companies. Then, mere minutes after Pelosi touched down, news of these new military exercises broke.
The contrast can be both puzzling, and terribly awkward. I’ll sometimes find myself on a program, and the host speaks to me as though war is going to break out tomorrow. But when I respond with a more formal version of, “Uh, no, things are perfectly chill here,” the host will make a confused face and hang up after a few minutes. I often wonder whether I didn’t give them what they wanted to hear—something terrible, about the imminent end times.
So is going on television programs and disappointing television anchors that want to hear about World War III a form of activism? Arguably, yes. People need to hear about Taiwanese perspectives. I believe it’s dangerous for such misleading perceptions of Taiwan to circulate through major international media outlets. Imagining that Taiwan is on the verge of conflict and that there is panic in the streets itself escalates the odds of conflict.
The gravest danger is in misinformation and disinformation, and how quickly twisted narratives can form. State actors aren’t creating narratives from nothing; they can easily harvest organic narratives, panics and rumors that develop on the Internet, especially on social media. So, it’s important to intervene quickly. Some may miss the age of slower, more deliberate news, but the days of newspapers and print media are over.
I can’t stand the corporate networks, but in the absence of widely adopted alternatives, I will engage there when I can, and if other networks emerge and grow, I’ll just have to get on those and engage too. Maybe I’ll become a YouTuber or TikToker one day, if that’s what getting accurate information about Taiwan out there into the world requires.
I’ve also tried to convince other English-fluent Taiwanese people to take to the Internet and try and get their perspectives in public.
At its worst, journalism thrives off the chaos and suffering in the world. And most of the time, anything I say just disappears into the void, and I never hear anything more about it. It’s sometimes hard to know how all of this shapes and affects perceptions, yet the global news industry exists, is massive, and shapes how we perceive every place that is not our own. So it’s always weird when Taiwan is suddenly magnified in the eyes of the international world, going from obscure, marginal island—“an austere rock in a typhoon-laden sea with 24 million people,” in the words of Thomas Friedman—to the flashpoint on the brink of World War III. Taiwan seems to suddenly balloon in significance then deflate back into insignificance, in an ever-recurring cycle of hyperbole, panic and misunderstanding.