China’s military continued to threaten Taiwan on Saturday with a series of drills, a show of force designed not only to intimidate Taiwan and the United States but also to appease a local public that appeared frustrated by what it perceived as an insufficiently belligerent stance.
In a series of propaganda exercises as much as military, China has in the past few days threatened territory Taiwan claims as its own more directly than ever. During the drills, announced in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan earlier this week, Chinese missiles landed in waters north, south and east of Taiwan, and dozens of military aircraft repeatedly crossed the unofficial median line in the Taiwan Strait that separates the island from the mainland. Taiwan’s defense ministry said on Saturday that Chinese warplanes and ships in the strait appeared to be simulating an attack on Taiwan’s main island.
Chinese state media gave breathless coverage of the drills, and the reaction on much of Chinese social media was rapturous. On Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform, several of the most trending topics were about the military exercises. A hashtag about China having the full ability to force reunification with Taiwan, launched by the official People’s Daily, has been viewed more than 500 million times. Another hashtag, “What China says is what it does,” has more than 50 million views.
Several widely shared articles on WeChat, another social media platform, reassured Chinese citizens that the government was playing a long game.
The reaction was a marked departure from the public’s initial assessment of China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s trip, which she said was intended to show support for Taiwan’s vibrant democracy. When she landed in Taiwan on Tuesday evening, becoming the highest-ranking US official to visit the island in 25 years, many Chinese social media users could not contain their outrage and embarrassment that China had not done more to stop her .
Chinese officials have repeatedly promised “serious consequences” if she visits. Some in the state media went so far as to predict military action to prevent it from landing.
When such extreme steps did not materialize and China instead announced military exercises and issued a series of condemnations, nationalistic fervor turned to shame. Many said they were ashamed of their army and government.
But by Saturday, the tide seemed to have turned. As official media shared photos of a Chinese soldier observing a Taiwanese warship through binoculars and highlighted the “unprecedented” nature of China’s countermeasures, some users said they were wrong to doubt their country. “I bow to the motherland in apology for my rude comments on the 2nd, the night of Ms. Pelosi’s arrival,” said a Weibo comment that has been liked more than 90,000 times.
It is difficult to gauge the extent to which public opinion has actually changed, given China’s widespread internet censorship. But the narrative adopted by state media made it clear that officials saw a need to address public disillusionment, said Luwei Rose Luqiu, an assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies Chinese propaganda.
“The propaganda department failed to avoid creating unrealistic expectations among the Chinese public,” she said. As a result, “the official media and some officially sanctioned opinion leaders began to come out to cool the situation.”
The official gloss over the exercises reflects the fact that the current military exercises are an escalation of previous ones. Several of the zones China has designated for this week’s drills are closer to Taiwan than the zones declared during the Taiwan Strait crisis in the mid-1990s, which also involved China firing missiles around the island. Some of the rockets fell this time in waters Japan claims as its own, prompting Japan’s prime minister to call for an “immediate halt” to the drills.
China’s Eastern Theater Military Command, which covers Taiwan, said in a statement on Saturday that it was testing its land and sea attack capabilities.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has promised eventual reunification, by force if necessary.
State media indicated the actions could mark a new pattern of more regular and aggressive incursions. The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, said in an editorial on Friday that work to promote unification had “entered a new stage”. On Chinese state television on Saturday, Meng Xiangqing, a professor at the National Defense University, said the military’s actions may normalize.
“Until the forces of Taiwan independence stop for one day, until foreign interference stops for one day, then our actions to protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity will not stop,” he said.
China also said on Friday it would cancel or suspend talks with the United States on areas including climate change and military coordination, which some analysts say increases the chances of a misunderstanding escalating into a full-blown crisis.
The United States, Taiwan and other governments have accused China of overreacting.
But in some ways, the apparent shift in public opinion may have more to do with successful Chinese propaganda than the actual intensity of the drills, said Chong Jae Yan, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore who studies nationalism and Chinese foreign policy.
Although the current drills were on a larger scale and closer to Taiwan than usual, the Chinese military has been stepping up incursions into territory claimed by Taiwan for years, he said. And China could have gone further, such as by starting the exercises while Ms. Pelosi was still in Taiwan, or by causing more disruption to U.S. and Japanese military activity in the region, he added.
“So if there is a view that the PRC’s actions have been strong enough, it will be due in no small part to the internal communications of the PRC’s state-controlled media,” Professor Chong said, using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
It is clear that Chinese officials have worked in recent days to temper public frustration, framing the government’s response as both unwavering and forceful and carefully calibrated. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said the Chinese people were “rational” patriots, a line that was soon adopted by many state media and nationalist commentators. A widely circulated article published by the Zhejiang provincial government’s propaganda unit urged the public to consider “the most effective game to solve the Taiwan issue,” adding that history would not be made overnight.
Some disappointed voices remain online. Many pointed out that although they were now criticized as being irrational, the officers’ aggressive language encouraged them in the first place.
But many of those voices have in turn been attacked by other commentators who accuse them of being pro-American or undermining faith in the government. Many of these accusatory comments used similar tones or wording, raising the possibility that they were formally organized rather than organic, Professor Luqiu said.
“The Propaganda Department believes that public opinion can be controlled through censorship and technology, such as manipulating online traffic and trending topics,” she said. As a result, frustrated voices may become less visible.
But beneath the surface, “the damage,” she added, “was inevitable.”
Li Ti, Amy Chang Chien, John Liu, Zixu Wang and Edward Wong contributed reporting and research.