n 2018, a typhoon stranded thousands of people at Kansai International Airport, near Osaka, Japan. Among them were some tourists from Taiwan. Normally, this story might not have had much political meaning. But a few hours into the incident, an obscure Taiwanese news website began reporting on what it said was the failure of Taiwanese diplomats to rescue their citizens. A handful of bloggers began posting on social media, too, excitedly praising Chinese officials who had sent buses to help their citizens escape quickly. Some of the Taiwanese tourists supposedly had pretended to be Chinese in order to get on board. Chatter about the incident spread. Photographs and videos, allegedly from the airport, began to circulate.
The story rapidly migrated into the mainstream Taiwanese media. Journalists attacked the government: Why had Chinese diplomats moved so quickly and effectively? Why were the Taiwanese so incompetent? News organizations in Taiwan described the incident as a national embarrassment, especially for a country whose leaders proclaim they have no need for support from China. Headlines declared, “To Get on the Bus, One Has to Pretend to Be Chinese,” and “Taiwanese Follow China Bus.” At its peak, the angry coverage and social-media attacks became so overwhelming that a Taiwanese diplomat, apparently unable to bear the deluge of commentary and the shame of failure, died by suicide.
Subsequent investigations turned up some strange facts. Many of the people who had been posting so prominently and with such enthusiasm about the incident were not real; their photographs were composite images. The obscure website that first promoted the story turned out to be affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. The videos were fake. Strangest of all, the Japanese government confirmed that there had been no Chinese buses, and thus no special Taiwanese failure at all. But this semblance of failure had been pounced upon by journalists and news anchors, especially by those who wanted to use it to attack the ruling party. This, clearly, was what Chinese propagandists had intended. The anonymity of social media, the proliferation of “news” sites with unclear origins, and, above all, the hyper-partisan nature of Taiwanese politics had been manipulated in order to push one of the Chinese regime’s favorite narratives: Taiwanese democracy is weak. Chinese autocracy is strong. In an emergency, Taiwanese people want to be Chinese.