China Has Overplayed the Outrage Card

An illustration of a hand with the Chinese flag around the neck of a face represented by a Taiwan flag
Ben Hickey

Democracies around the world are no longer as worried as they once were about offending a fragile Beijing.

In Chinese-speaking communities beyond the reach of Beijing’s censorship regime, the song “Fragile” has been an unexpected hit. With more than 26 million views on YouTube since dropping in mid-October, the satirical love song to Chinese nationalism has topped the site’s charts for Taiwan and Hong Kong, its lyrics mocking Chinese Communist Party rhetoric about Taiwan while also taking aim at Xi Jinping and Chinese censors.

In parts, the Mandarin Chinese duet portrays Taiwan as an object of unwanted overtures that simply want to get along with a hypersensitive and aggressive Beijing. Its chorus goes full it’s-not-you-it’s-me: “Sorry I’m so strong-minded / The truth always upsets you / Maybe I shouldn’t be so blunt / I’m so sorry / I’ve angered you again.”

The song, by the Malaysian rapper Namewee and the Australian singer Kimberley Chen, seems to have hit all the right notes for those tiring of a perpetually offended and angry China—and resulted in the scrubbing of the duo’s Chinese social media accounts.

In Taiwan, where many pop stars stay out of the political realm to retain access to China’s lucrative market, the song has been greeted as a refreshing, and rare, send-up of its giant neighbour’s refutation of Taiwanese sovereignty. (Beijing claims that Taiwan is its territory, though the CCP has never controlled it, and Taiwanese overwhelmingly reject the idea of unification.)

Yet it is also a sign of something more: Its lyrics and its context mirror the actions of democracies around the world that are growing tired of walking on eggshells to avoid angering a petulant Beijing. Rather than releasing a song, officials in Europe, Japan, and Australia are expanding long-ignored relationships with Taiwan. China’s foreign ministry has lambasted and threatened them all, but echoing the song’s ethos, they are no longer as worried as they once were about offending a fragile Beijing.

In a move likely to anger Beijing …

The phrase—a touchstone of news reports about the Chinese government’s countless and often shifting red lines—will be familiar to anyone who has read about China in the past several years. The context in which it is now used, however, is markedly different.

Not long ago, the Chinese government was economical and targeted with its outrage, typically lashing out only over what even critics might regard as major issues from Beijing’s point of view, such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2008 (the CCP regards him as a Tibetan separatist), or the liberal activist Liu Xiaobo’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 (Liu advocated for issues that are anathema to the CCP, such as greater individual political freedoms).

“Now China just picks fights out of arrogance and bullying,” Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador to China from 2007 to 2013, told me. When Beijing, immediately following Ottawa’s release of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, held as part of an extradition case, released two Canadians it had detained and isolated for more than 1,000 days, it seemed a clear message to the world that hostage taking has been added to its diplomatic toolbox.

Where the word Beijing once conjured the image of a confident, rising power, today it represents a frowning, finger-pointing, never-erring crank, its constant stream of vitriol diminishing the effectiveness of Chinese anger. One of the implications of this hyperinflation of hurt feelings has been the effective removal of the deterrent against democracies’ improving their unofficial relations with Taiwan. After all, if most moves are likely to anger Beijing, why hold back from any of them?

The United States has led the way in expanding ties with Taiwan while grappling with an increasingly prickly China. This began under the Trump administration, and has continued under Joe Biden, who in his first year in office has twice said that the U.S. is committed to defending Taiwan from Chinese attack. (For the past four decades, the U.S. has had an unofficial policy of not publicly saying how it would respond to a China-Taiwan conflict, in the hope of not emboldening either side to start one.)

Similar dynamics are changing the minds of leaders elsewhere in the world. Europe offers a prime example of how Beijing’s belligerence has worked against its own diplomatic goals while inadvertently boosting Taiwan’s international profile.

Primarily focused on economic matters, Brussels had served as a reliable counterweight to Washington regarding China policy; Europe was typically less willing to view Beijing as a strategic rival or threat. That has changed. This spring, after China pushed back against European Union criticism of human-rights violations in Xinjiang by slapping sanctions on EU entities and individuals, including five members of the European Parliament, Brussels put a bilateral investment agreement with China on hold.

Politicians on the continent are also showing greater willingness to meet with their Taiwanese counterparts. Last week, Raphaël Glucksmann, one of those hit with Beijing’s sanctions, visited Taipei as part of a delegation of EU parliamentarians, arriving just weeks after he and his colleagues voted to improve ties with Taiwan and lay the groundwork for a bilateral investment agreement. (Prior to boarding his flight to Taiwan, Glucksmann tweeted an airport selfie, commenting in French: “Neither threats nor sanctions will intimidate me. Never. And I will continue, always, to stand with those who fight for democracy and human rights. So there you have it: I’m going to Taiwan.”)

Seeing a rare opportunity to boost its profile in Europe, Taipei is doing what it can to take advantage. In late October, a delegation of more than 60 Taiwanese officials and businesspeople visited Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, signing a slew of technology-focused agreements.

At the same time, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, was barnstorming across the continent, casting his homeland as a partner in the pushback against China’s threat to democracies. His tour included stops in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. While in Prague, which in 2020 became sister cities with Taipei after ending similar ties with Beijing, Wu drank beers with the president of the Czech Senate, who presented him with a medal. He also visited Brussels, and although his meetings there were nowhere near as monumental as Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China that began the thaw in ties between Washington and Beijing, it nevertheless represents the highest-profile tour of Europe by a Taiwanese minister since Taiwan’s democratization in the 90s.

Wu’s visit also stole some of the spotlight from his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, who attended the G20 summit in Rome. Just before Wang’s arrival, Wu managed a virtual visit to Rome, addressing the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, an international group of parliamentarians that advocates a tougher approach to China.

“The rise of the People’s Republic of China, as led by the Chinese Communist Party, is the defining challenge for the world’s democratic states,” Wu said. “This warrants our working more closely together.”

As is clear from the various travel schedules, much of Taiwan’s outreach has concentrated on post-Soviet states, and Lithuania has been chief among them in fostering the growing friendship between Europe and Taiwan. Chinese-government diatribes against Vilnius and attempts at economic punishment of the country of 3 million—an EU member state—in recent months have also increased concerns in Brussels about getting too close to Beijing.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s espionage, interference in Europe’s political affairs, and coercive behavior made many countries become more cautious about China,” the Lithuanian lawmaker Matas Maldeikis, who will lead a government delegation to Taiwan in December, told me. “The human-rights situation in China and growing control under Xi Jinping is very negatively seen by many in our society, which still remembers similar persecutions under Soviet rule in our own country.”

The moves were, as the trope goes, likely to anger Beijing, and indeed, they did. Wu’s warm welcome in Prague, beers included, was a “malicious provocative act,” the Chinese foreign-ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, adding: “The despicable maneuvers by a few individuals in the Czech Republic are doomed to fail. We urge them to promptly change course, otherwise they will end up swallowing the bitter fruit themselves.”

Beyond Europe, countries in China’s own neighborhood are beginning to more openly embrace their unofficial ties to Taiwan as they grow tired of Beijing’s bellicosity. Japan—which colonized Taiwan for a half century until the end of World War II—has declared Taiwan a national-security interest, and defense officials have suggested that Tokyo would intervene, presumably alongside the U.S., in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. And Australia, which has been subject to Chinese economic coercion ever since Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origins of the global coronavirus pandemic, is beginning to look away from Beijing and toward Taipei.

In Australia in particular, warmth to Taiwan is being expressed through semiofficial channels, as well as by the broader public. Polling by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, indicates that positive feelings toward Taipei have increased substantially over the past year, and in October, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited the Taiwanese capital. Though he is now a private citizen, no senior officials in Canberra offered any criticism of his travels or his remarks in support of Taiwan’s struggle in the face of Chinese pressure and threats.

For now, in contrast to the hawkish tone of many inside the Beltway, few people elsewhere are openly advocating for confrontation with China. Yet as Beijing continues to threaten countries for not doing its bidding, that may change, and the threat is particularly acute for democratic societies, according to Maldeikis, the Lithuanian parliamentarian.

“Given the Communist Party’s desire to control everything—to impose their agenda, to restrict freedom of thought in academic circles, the infiltration through propaganda—this is not a question of a few concessions,” he told me. “The more concessions you make, the more the Chinese side insists upon. If friendship with China means even more submission, maybe it is more worthwhile to oppose it.”

Lounging in a crop top and jeans in a studio in Taipei’s posh East District, Chen, one of the artists behind “Fragile,” fondly recalls living in Shanghai at the age of 10, when she performed in a local production of The Lion King. Her parents wanted a freer environment for their daughter, though, so they relocated the family to Taipei. There, her career took off: She scored a hit song at 17, and signed a record deal with Sony. For a time, that kind of profile would force her—like any artist hoping to succeed commercially, let alone one performing in Mandarin Chinese—to avoid criticizing China, directly or indirectly.

Chen has, however, outgrown those concerns. When Namewee approached her with “Fragile,” she instantly fell in love with it.

“One reason I love this song so much is because it is not censored, it is not limited, it is not bullshit,” she told me. “It is complete honesty. It’s not sugarcoated in any way, and I feel like that, for me, really represents who I am as a person.”

Then, echoing growing global fatigue with Beijing’s seemingly endless capacity for outrage, she added: “It’s, like, three minutes of telling people, ‘Yeah, I can’t do that anymore.’”

All Rights Reserved for  Chris Horton

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