Language has the power to shape our understanding of reality.
This idea, long recognized by anthropologists and sociologists, highlights the significant influence of the words we use and how we communicate on our perception and interaction with the world. From the way we describe things, people, and events, to the meanings we ascribe to them, language plays a crucial role in shaping our thoughts and beliefs.
This concept takes on particular significance in politics and the news media because of the far-reaching effects of language in these spheres. By skilfully choosing their words, and framing issues in a particular way, politicians and media outlets can shape public opinion and influence decision-making.
In short, language creates reality. Consider these examples.
President Putin says Russia is conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine to “de-nazify” it. Yet, nobody in the Western world is buying into it, instead calling it a “war” or an “invasion.”
And when the reports from Bucha emerged, the Russians called it a “hoax” while the Western governments and rights groups agreed that these were, in fact, "war crimes." As a result, the Russians now live in a universe that is quite apart from ours.
Next, think about the very different images that the words “educational center” or “vocational school” and the phrase “concentration camp” conjure up. That they can all be used in relation to the same thing also shows how different the world inside China is from the world outside it, and how incompatible these viewpoints and values are. In the case of the “educational centers” for Uyghurs, the world has eventually caught on to this subterfuge, with the U.N. calling the same thing possible “crimes against humanity.”
Language around Taiwan lacks precision
The same sharpness of focus afforded to Ukraine and Uyghurs has not been used to describe the issues surrounding Taiwan. Many Western media outlets are still uncritically repeating words used by Chinese officials and the CCP propaganda machine, without giving it a second thought.
They are not providing their audiences with the nuance needed to grasp the complex issues involved. Part of the problem is that these issues are not new and the language has already been allowed to be used for decades without sufficient examination.
Scrutinizing the language used around Taiwan is crucial, as it obscures the real issues. In the process, the Taiwanese people - who are at the center of all this - are disempowered.
During the decades in which these terms have been thrown around, Taiwan has changed from a bloody military dictatorship into a vibrant, liberal democracy. It is a great achievement that the Taiwanese have accomplished by themselves.
They did so without foreign troops on the ground or billions of dollars in aid (an approach tried from time to time by the U.S. in other parts of the world with mixed results). Even the communists abandoned some of their more militant language as “liberating” democratic Taiwan became too ridiculous to be voiced.
And so the “One Country Two Systems” slogan was introduced. But there is a problem with that too. And, after its implementation in Hong Kong, the problem is there for all to see. There is now more talk about “reunification.”
It is time that the Western narratives about Taiwan also reflected the changed realities on the ground. It would be folly to continue using this handed-down vocabulary without questioning it. Here is a brief overview of some of the problematic terms and some suggestions for helpful alternatives.
A brief glossary of misleading terms:
“Reunification.” It is quite obvious that what was never joined in the first place can never be “reunified.”
The use of this term to describe the future of Taiwan desired for it by the CCP (but not by Taiwan’s 23 million citizens) is manipulative, as it suggests that Taiwan and the People's Republic of China were once a part of some natural, united state. This tries to erase the history of Taiwan, of which only a part was briefly controlled by the Qing dynasty before being given to the Japanese, then to the Kuomintang, and later becoming a self-governed democracy. There are other related words and phrases with the same meaning like “return” or “getting Taiwan back.”
More accurate terms would be ”unification” and ”integration” (which are more neutral) or “invasion,” ”annexation,” “subjugation,” and “takeover” (which are more reflective of the resistance of Taiwanese to the idea of such joining together with, or rather being taken over by, China).
“Renegade province” is an interesting term, because, for once, it does not come directly from the lips of Beijing officials (they use the term “Taiwan province”). Western journalists have adopted this term, presumably as a shorthand for Taiwan’s precarious international status.
The term became popular in the 1980s and has been used by Washington Post, The Associated Press, Time, and Bloomberg, among others. In some ways, this term is even worse because it not only implicitly influences the audiences that Taiwan is a part of China, but also that it is some kind of a Wild West-like territory on which the CCP presumably seeks to restore law and order.
It is always worth repeating that Taiwan never broke away from China, which is what the term “renegade” or “breakaway” seems to imply. Historically, Taiwan was ceded to Japan as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki and then was handed over to the Kuomintang nationalists after the Second World War. Crucially, it never was a part of the People’s Republic of China.
Suggested terms: “Taiwan,” with adjectives like “self-governing” and “democratic” which indicate that this is very much an ordered society, not a lawless frontier.
One-China Policy vs One-China Principle. This one is a big issue because the two are not the same thing but the Western media seem to use the terms interchangeably, thus hopelessly confusing the issue.
The One-China Principle is the official stance of Beijing that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it. The One-China Policy is the U.S. government’s position that it acknowledges this, without declaring its opinion on the issue. The U.S. views the matter as unresolved and maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan.
All this talk about One-China P (whether Principle or Policy) helps to gloss over a more fundamental issue: the right of the people to decide their own destiny in the international order. The principle of self-determination is supposed to be the cornerstone of international law.
Yet, One-China P, in the context of Taiwan, ignores the sense of Taiwanese national identity among the local population, with people identifying as Chinese at historical lows (2.4% in 2022, and only 1.3% supporting outright unification).
It is not easy to suggest alternatives here. However, it is important to always stress the difference between the two and what is encapsulated in each. To point out that “principle” is more of a belief, an article of faith, and part of the ideology of the CCP, while the “policy” is the U.S. government’s polite acknowledgment of the CCP’s stance.
Words as important as canons
It is important to recognize the stakes involved in the language used to describe the situation in Taiwan. The Chinese government has its own agenda, and the terms it uses should not be blindly adopted without understanding their implications.
It is also crucial to take into account that the situation in Taiwan has evolved, with more and more of its citizens identifying as Taiwanese and distancing themselves from being Chinese. Notwithstanding some cultural influences (which naturally pre-date the Cultural Revolution), Taiwanese society has now developed into a liberal democracy with a strong sense of its own identity. Taiwanese society values its way of life and is unlikely to give it up willingly.
The West has unwittingly adopted some of the language used by the CCP propaganda about Taiwan without sufficiently questioning it. This language creates a distorted understanding of the situation favorable to the totalitarian regime.
In the case of Taiwan, the use of such language detracts from the fundamental principle of the right to self-determination. It is time to re-examine this language and develop more truthful and precise alternatives.
The fieldwork this article is based on was made possible by the support of the Taiwan Fellowship program.