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The View from Taichung: PRC: We will assimilate you

How the PRC is upgrading its weapons of mass deconstruction

Exhibit on 228 Incident in Tainan

Exhibit on 228 Incident in Tainan (CNA photo)

On the evening of February 27, 1947, a tobacco vendor clashed with agents of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau in Taipei. A crowd gathered. Angered and sick to death of the one-party government’s corruption, incompetence, and looting of Taiwan’s assets, the Taiwanese were ready for revolt.

A fleeing monopoly bureau agent fired into the watching crowd, triggered protests, and then, the following day, island-wide violence, which mushroomed into full fledged rebellion.

The rebellion was brutally crushed by the KMT, which killed and imprisoned thousands in subsequent years. The killings targeted educated and experienced Taiwanese, removing a generation of leaders from Taiwan. The 2-28 Incident and subsequent terror have become significant historical moments for the democratic opposition.

It thus seems almost inevitable that China, this month, began attacking the pro-democracy side in Taiwan for its use of 2-28. Describing this as "despicable." This week China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) claimed that 2-28 “is part of the Chinese people’s liberation struggle… For a long time, this incident has been used by certain Taiwanese independence forces for ulterior motives. They have distorted historical fact, instigated contradictions based on provincial origin, tearing at Taiwan’s ethnic groups, creating antagonism in society.”

This assimilation of Taiwan history to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) historical narratives can hardly be aimed at audiences in Taiwan, who as its victims understand 2-28 well. Rather, it targets audiences at home and the media abroad.

Taiwanese do not want to be annexed to China, as poll after poll shows, and the PRC is aware of this. It has to lay the intellectual and moral groundwork for its own people to accept a war to annex Taiwan. One way it can do that is through presentations of alt-history designed to subsume Taiwan’s history into China’s. By incorporating Taiwan’s history into the greater CCP narrative, it can then portray that history and “liberation struggle” as unfinished, presenting the Chinese military as forces completing a historical process.

The other audience is of course the western media. In Taiwan the Kuomintang (KMT) has an alt-history as well, that presents incoming Chinese carpetbaggers, the mainlander population, as the real victims of 2-28 and minimizes the killings.

In fact in the subsequent terror the KMT government murdered and imprisoned many of its own people, though much of that history and historical memory has disappeared. Since 2-28 is regarded in western historical studies of Taiwan as a watershed moment, and has been the target of much critical scholarly investigation, the KMT has been unable to wrest control of that narrative.

However, the PRC is an entirely different story. Wealthy and powerful, it has far greater influence over the western media than the KMT ever did. For example, in recent years the international media has developed the odious and disturbing habit of allowing PRC state agents to speak at length without challenge or fact check.

This is sometimes defended as some version of finding out or presenting “what the other side thinks”, as the author of this Atlantic interview with Shen Dingli contended in the subsequent comments on the article when many pointed out that Shen’s claims were nonsense. Similarly, writers often appear to incorporate information from such actors without directly quoting, such as this piece on Trump and China which appears to heavily source from Shen Dingli, bizarrely asserting that the US announced a sale of 250 F-5 fighters the day after the Shanghai Communique was announced (the actual number of fighters sold in the 1982 announcement was zero: Reagan sold licenses to manufacture a further 60 F-5s, which Taiwan had been making since 1973, as consolation for Taiwan not getting F-16s).

The western media also frequently treats “scholars” in “Taiwan Studies” programs at Chinese universities as if they were actual independent academics providing information, and not state actors and often, political warfare experts, spreading propaganda. Indeed, it frequently sources them to “balance” media pieces. In doing so, the western media implicitly recognizes the propaganda nature of “Taiwan Studies” in China – they could hardly “balance” media pieces with the “Chinese side” if these individuals were not propaganda sources.

These habits create the oft-remarked problem of "false balance," in which propaganda from state agents is given the same truth-value as robust and diverse historical knowledge from critical thinkers won by hard study. This is a constant headache in the western media.

Though specialists all know that PRC (and ROC) claims to the Senkaku Islands of Japan and South China Sea are recent inventions with no historical precedent in Chinese history, that knowledge never makes it into media discussions. Rather, the media usually notes the existence of a dispute and the positions of the “two sides” without ever informing the reader that the PRC claims are expansionist nonsense.

These habits of the international media augur ill for this latest PRC propaganda campaign. With this move to assimilate Taiwan history to CCP historical narratives, and official commemoration by government departments in China, the CCP manufactures a pre-packaged historical claim for its agents and actors, which will then be presented to the western media as CCP alt-history.

Sooner or later it will begin to find its way into articles, interviews, and similar, sometimes given the same weight as robust scholarly history from "the other side." Readers are invited to imagine what PRC state actors like Shen, often quoted at length in the western media, will be permitted to say because of this new narrative.

Because balance.