Tea Leaf Nation
‘We’re No Compatriots of Yours’
Why has mainland Chinese aid to post-quake Taiwan gone over like a lead balloon, while Japanese assistance is warmly welcomed?
On Feb. 6, the eve of the lunar new year, an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale struck Tainan City in southern Taiwan, just as families were gathering to celebrate the major holiday. The most recent estimate by Taiwan’s Disaster Control Center puts the death toll at 100, with 19 people still trapped beneath the rubble. Taiwan’s closest neighbors, Japan and China, sent words of sympathy to the self-governing island, and promised emergency aid. But while Taiwanese expressed gratitude for Japan’s outreach, similar overtures from China met with anger. And what Chinese President Xi Jinping perceives as solidarity across the strait, struck Taiwanese as an underhanded assertion of sovereignty by the mainland.
In the immediate aftermath of the Tainan quake, on Feb. 6, Japanese state media outlet NHK reported Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying, “Japan stands ready to provide any necessary assistance to Taiwan at this difficult time.” Many Taiwanese netizens were touched by the statement, with thousands expressing gratitude to Japan on Facebook, Taiwan’s most popular social network, and PTT, Taiwan’s most popular BBS message board. “This is true friendship between Taiwan and Japan,” wrote one, echoing a refrain repeated by many other users. “Taiwan needs friendly neighbors,” rather than an “evil” one, wrote another.
Contrast that to the backlash on Feb. 7, after Chinese President Xi made similar overtures on behalf of the Chinese government, which views Taiwan as an inalienable part of China. Xi stated that “Chinese compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan strait are of the same family, whose blood is thicker than water,” declaring that the mainland would be willing to offer assistance. Online, Taiwanese roared with indignation. “Who listens to those who speak with missiles?” wrote one PTT user in reference to China’s 1,600-plus ballistic missiles directed at Taiwan. “We’re no compatriots of yours,” wrote another. The sentiment was almost widely shared among Taiwanese netizens; dozens responded to China’s offer of assistance on PTT by telling the mainland to “beat it,” often in far more profane terms.
The backlash against Xi’s words has baffled many mainland Chinese web users. Understanding the blowback requires looking to Taiwan’s last major earthquake. On September 21, 1999, a quake with a Richter magnitude of 7.3 struck central Taiwan, claiming more than 2,400 lives and rendering tens of thousands homeless due to damage from the quake. It was one of the worst natural disasters in Taiwan’s history. But politics with mainland China, then under president Jiang Zemin, hindered international efforts to coordinate relief. Because the United Nations does not recognize the Taiwan government, the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was not able to assist Taiwan unless China requested assistance on its behalf. Donor organizations and friends and allies of China hesitated to make direct offers of assistance to Taiwan, without seeking Beijing’s blessing. This dynamic created crucial delays during the critical 72-hour period when rescue workers have the best chance of finding earthquake victims trapped under rubble. As this unfolded, Jiang was reported expressing regret for “compatriots,” the same word choice Xi used after Tainan.
It wasn’t the only time that China has frustrated Taiwan’s access to international institutions during a crisis. During the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that spread across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan in 2003, Taiwan pushed for observer status to the World Health Organization as the number of SARS deaths on the island surpassed 80. Sha Zukang, China’s representative to the UN, vigorously blocked Taiwan’s entrance into the organization, famously telling one reporter, “Who cares about your Taiwan?”
Cross-strait relations have improved markedly since then. Under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, due to leave office in May, the relationship between the island and the mainland have seen an unprecedented degree of political and economic exchange, culminating in the historic November 2015 handshake and meeting between Taiwan’s Ma and China’s Xi after six decades of friction and hostility. But away from the high-level bonhomie, Taiwanese netizens continue to fume at what they see as mainland efforts to hinder international assistance to Taiwan during humanitarian crises. Taiwanese web users have decried the language of “compatriots on both sides” as a Chinese attempt “to eat Taiwan’s tofu.” It’s an expression commonly used to describe a man looking to take sexual advantage of a woman, re-purposed to lambast China’s insistence on sovereignty over Taiwan in international forums at the expense of the health and security of Taiwanese people.
In comparison, Japan’s approach to humanitarian aid during times of crises in Taiwan have generally received high accolades and praise from Taiwanese. During the 921 earthquake, Japan did not wait for Beijing’s approval, and sent the largest retinue of rescue workers, as well as donated the largest sum of relief aid. Many Taiwanese remembered Japan’s generosity and donated in kind during the destruction that the combined earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant explosion wrought on the archipelago in March 2011.
In the aftermath of the latest quake, the comparative amounts of aid flowing from China and Japan has only reinforced negative Taiwanese views of the Chinese mainland. Japan’s government was one of the first to react to the news of the tragedy and has already donated $1 million. In addition, Japanese citizens have privately contributed an additional $979,000 in donations through Yahoo! Japan’s fundraising web platform. China has offered a comparatively smaller sum by way of China’s Red Cross, contributing a little over $300,000 in relief funds, and an additional $22,000 in personal donations through Chinese web-company Tencent’s charity crowdfunding platform.
China’s offer of assistance to Taiwan has surpassed in dollar amounts those made by South Korea and Russia, and China is not being accused of hindering aid relief at the Tainan disaster site. But Beijing’s insistence on weaving issues of sovereignty into its crisis response has given Taiwanese the perception that humanitarian concerns are a secondary issue. Xi may very well view Taiwanese as “compatriots across the strait.” The problem is that for many of Taiwan’s web users, these words ring hollow.