On the night of August 2, many Chinese people were tracking U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s travels online. They either joined the millions of people looking at Flightradar24, or watched live streaming and discussed online. People believed that they were witnessing history – a possible shoot-down of the House speaker’s plane or a sudden military operation to reunify Taiwan.
That, obviously, did not happen. However, the direction of history has changed. Since Pelosi’s visit, the future of the cross-strait issue has surged toward military conflict, in the minds of Chinese netizens. Mainland public opinion now prioritizes reunification by force. When Pelosi planned her trip, the strategic logic was to ensure U.S. deterrence. But it may have done the opposite: increasing the likelihood of war by raising public demands for it within China.
The Chinese public was already paying close attention to Pelosi even before the House speaker started her trip. The Chinese government and media talked tough and used every chance to condemn Pelosi. Official voices did not make it clear in advance how China would react to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, yet both China’s Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense warned that there would be harsh countermeasures. Meanwhile, a narrative of China-U.S. rivalry and strong nationalist sentiments went viral among China’s internet users. When Hu Xijin, a prominent Chinese commentator and former editor-in-chief of China’s state-affiliated media Global Times, tweeted his support of tough military deterrence and posited a possible shoot-down of Pelosi’s plane, many Chinese people read that as a governmental statement. They expected a tough and fierce reaction from the government, and they expected that to come on the night of August 2.
As a result, on August 3 and 4 disappointment was the mainstream emotion on the Chinese internet. A mix of shame, fear of being viewed as weak, and even anger toward the perceived inaction of the government accounted for the bulk of online discussions. Deng Bojun, a Chinese internet influencer with 6 million followers on Weibo, recalled that his friends had “relatively big negative emotions” after learning that Pelosi’s plane had landed at the Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan. Deng explained that people were agitated because self-media and influencers had set expectations too high for China’s reaction to the trip.
The “negative emotions,” be it disappointment or anger, resulted from a belief that China lost to the U.S. in this “game of chicken” by simply allowing Pelosi to land. That was interpreted as a loss of face plus a loss of sovereignty – as Beijing has always seen Taiwan as part of its territory. Deng compared this incident with what many Chinese people call “the three disgraces” – three incidents around the turn of the 21st century that saw the United States shame China. They were the Hainan incident, the Yinhe ship incident, and the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Some nationalist Chinese users started to add Pelosi’s visit to Taipei to the list and call them collectively “the four disgraces.”
However, the negative public emotion was never likely to backfire against the Chinese government. These four disgraces – if Pelosi’s trip is counted – share one emotion in common: They revealed a perceived U.S. threat to Chinese sovereignty and a fear that the West would infringe on China’s sovereignty and threaten the existence of the Chinese nation. The Hainan incident was a U.S. surveillance plane colliding with a Chinese fighter jet in the South China Sea; the Yinhe ship incident was the U.S. Navy detaining and searching a Chinese ship in international waters. The bombing of the embassy was alleged to be accidental but the Chinese people hardly bought it. Viewed alongside these incidents, Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, another sovereignty issue, would incite nationalist and anti-U.S. sentiments much more than disappointment toward Beijing.
Yet even what disappointment there was diminished within a few days when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced and started military drills around the island of Taiwan. The early disappointment reflected a fear of inaction, which was dispelled when the Chinese government began to implement its countermeasures. Meanwhile, there was a change of focus quietly underway in the public opinion field: The narrative was switching from China-U.S. rivalry to Mainland-Taiwan reunification.
As shown by Hu’s tweet and Deng’s observation, much of the early Chinese narrative on Pelosi’s visit was about the China-U.S. standoff. Chinese people worried that the U.S. infringed on the sovereignty of China, and that Beijing was weak in responding to Washington. However, starting from the morning of August 3, the focus shifted to a discussion around the Taiwan issue. An op-ed from a state-backed media account, titled “History Will Not Be Condensed into One Night,” began trending on Weibo and was reposted by many state newspapers. The article urged people to think about the best means to “solve the Taiwan issue.” And in the eye of public opinion, reunification by force is the future solution.
Against that backdrop, reports of the PLA’s military drills quickly went viral. Chang Kaishen, another Chinese internet influencer who is famous for his political analysis, told me that Chinese netizens came to believe that China did not lose face after the military drills broke several tacit rules between Beijing and Taipei, including repeated crossings of the median line of the strait. “This is a gradual process,” said Chang, “it is hard to find a specific point in time [on when netizens turned their opinion].” Some people looked at the map of the drills that were encircling the island and became more confident; others felt satisfied only after the PLA sent missiles flying over Taipei. One thing is for certain: The military drills were seen as a big step toward reunification by force, and that was welcomed by Chinese public opinion.
For a long time, reunification by force has been seen as only a “last resort” if peaceful reunification fails. Yet the definition of the “last resort” remains unclear. When might Beijing and the Chinese people decide that they need to use this last resort? When might peaceful reunification be doomed to failure? If one had posed these two questions to the Chinese public before August, then the answers probably would have been “undecided” and “definitely not yet.” It is not easy to support a military conflict, especially when the Chinese people have enjoyed decades of peace and development.
Li Jianqiu, a Chinese businessman and online commentator, told me that he felt the cross-strait relationship was “quite good” back in the age of Ma Ying-jeou. “It would be best if we can peacefully solve the (Taiwan) issue,” Li answered when asked about how much he supports reunification by force. If the cross-strait conflict is not brought openly and dramatically before almost everyone, the old age of peaceful hope might just be preserved.
Unfortunately, when Pelosi’s visit ignited the discussion on Taiwan, the Chinese public started to think about the possibility of peaceful reunification and question their willingness to maintain the status quo. Their conclusions were predictably negative. Chang Kaishen said that what he observed in Chinese was a positive correlation between knowledge about Taiwan and hostility toward the authorities on Taiwan. The more a netizen is exposed to news and information about Taiwan, Chang said, the more likely they will dislike Taiwan, and thus the more likely they will be to support reunification by force. It is no coincidence that in China’s closed media environment, most news that does appear about Taiwan is negative.
The first week of August certainly saw a substantial increase in Taiwan news and information appearing on China’s internet. The public sees clearly that the government on Taiwan does not believe it is part of China, and that few Taiwanese people – especially the younger generations – see themselves as Chinese. That is the hard truth, one that undermines the very possibility of peaceful reunification.
Chang, Deng, and Li all agreed that after Pelosi’s visit, reunification by force has become more welcome among the public.
Furthermore, the Chinese public now believes that the PLA will face relatively little resistance if they reunify Taiwan by force. The military drills, and the lack of pushback, have given most people an unprecedented level of confidence. As concluded by the Chinese Central Television’s influencer account Yuyuantantian, the PLA has made 10 breakthroughs around Taiwan, including approaching the coastline by air and by water. Many Chinese military fans compared this year’s drills with the ones during last Taiwan crisis in 1996. The transformation in China’s military power was rapid and astonishing.
Those who know weapons and equipment now claim that China’s armed forces have enough ability to implement area denial against the U.S. military. Meng Xiangqing, a professor of strategy at the National Defense University in Beijing, said on television that “we can fight in whatever way we want, and on whatever date we choose.” Those who don’t read military data nevertheless also judged the U.S. capacity to respond as low. After all, no U.S. warships were around this time, compared to the presence of two aircraft carriers in 1996. Deng pointed out that people think the “costs of reunification by force might not be that high.”
With that in mind, public opinion might well think a potential armed conflict between the PLA Navy and U.S. Navy is acceptable. It is questionable whether the Chinese public perceives the U.S. deterrence strategy as effective.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has changed history. At the very least, the PLA fired missiles over Taiwan Island for the first time in history. At the very most, the path of history might turn toward a future of reunification by force, one that is welcomed and supported by the Chinese public. The probability of armed conflict over Taiwan is rising. When the first day of the PLA’s drills unfolded, the PLA News Media Center posted a short story named “Notice! Military Drills Not Only Train the Soldiers But Also Train the People.” Sadly, it seems public opinion has been trained successfully as well.