China Unleashes ‘Rough Power’ as Taiwan Deals with Deadly Quake ◎ by J Michael Cole / Taiwan Sentinel 2018-02-13


Internet ultranationalism and political calculation are poisoning whatever ‘goodwill’ China has shown for Taiwan as it handles the aftermath of a powerful earthquake in Hualien. And this is not the first time the Chinese have engaged in such self-defeating behavior.

It has been trendy in recent months to coin new terms to describe the means by which states wield power to further their interests abroad. As most have been variations on Joseph Nye’s “soft power,” allow me to continue the tradition by coining one of my own to describe one type of power that China has unleashed upon Taiwan following the deadly earthquake that struck Hualien earlier this week: “rough power.”

The antithesis of “soft power,” rough power uses the state apparatus and the many communication instruments that allow a people to make their presence felt abroad. While “soft power” is meant to win hearts and minds, “rough power” achieves the opposite by alienating the targeted population.

Now, before I start being accused of being racist, let me emphasize that not every single one of the 1.4 billion Chinese is a participant in “rough power.” However, the number of them who engage in such activities is significant enough to have an impact on relations between the two countries. It is, no doubt, self-defeating behavior but a phenomenon that is difficult to keep in check amid rising ultranationalist sentiment in China, cultivated over decades of indoctrination in school and incentives for various segments of Chinese society to demonstrate their commitment to the tenets and doctrines of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


Ironically, for a country that has done such a good job censoring and controlling the Internet domestically, it has performed rather poorly in silencing the many channels by which “rough power” is broadcast abroad. Given that this undermines China’s efforts to convince the Taiwanese to accept “peaceful unification,” that failure to control “rough power” can only be explained by either inefficiency or because the Chinese authorities permit it to escape the Great Firewall. I tend to think that the latter better explains the phenomenon, and that this stems from mounting frustration in China at its inability to woo and coerce the Taiwanese into submission.

Whatever the causes and reasons, there is little doubt that this is self-defeating behavior in the utmost, which makes it difficult even for supporters of the CCP in Taiwan to portray China as a friend in times of crisis.

At least 10 people have died and 270 were injured in the strong earthquake that hit Hualien close to midnight on Tuesday. Immediately, expressions of solidarity and offers of support came from around the world. As always, the Japanese have stepped up to the occasion, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe going out of his way to issue a message of support, several artists making donations, and Japanese rescuers with much-needed heat-sensing devices being dispatched to the quake-hit region. In several instances, Japanese mentioned that they never forgot the generous help extended by the Taiwanese following the devastating Tōhoku earthquake in March 2011, and that it is now time for them to give back. Several other countries have offered either assistance or words of comfort.

This wasn’t aid just out of kindness, the extension of goodwill from one human being to another: this was crass politics, humanitarianism with a price tag. This was “rough power,” which crowds out genuine extensions of goodwill by other Chinese citizens and organizations.

China’s case has been rather different, however. The State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) — the main agency in charge of handling relations with Taiwan and which has a long history of issuing threats — contacted its counterpart, the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), to offer its assistance. When that offer was turned down — due to the fact that Taiwan has sufficient rescue teams at the site and probably because Taipei knew that Beijing would inevitably politicize its assistance for propaganda purposes — a spurned TAO bypassed Taiwan’s central government and contacted the Hualien government directly, whose head, Hualien County Commissioner Fu Kun-chi, has rarely said no to money from China. As expected, Fu immediately thanked the Chinese for their support and felt compelled to adopt the same tropes that the Chinese insist upon — “we are the same blood” — in making their case for unification. The same notions of “a common blood” were raised again and again by Chinese who have offered donations to Taiwan, as if help were contingent on the Taiwanese accepting the terms of unification or served as a conduit to remind the Taiwanese that they ought to recognize that “fact.” In other words, even in difficult times, the Chinese side couldn’t refrain from politicizing the crisis, which has not gone unnoticed by the Taiwanese quake victims, who while happy to receive aid, could well do without the silly politics. The contrast between the heartfelt offers of assistance from the Japanese with the more self-serving ones coming from China has also been noted. This wasn’t aid just out of kindness, the extension of goodwill from one human being to another: this was crass politics, humanitarianism with a price tag. This was “rough power,” which crowds out genuine extensions of goodwill by other Chinese citizens and organizations (China’s Red Cross Society has donated 1 million yuan, or US$159,000).

And it went downhill from there, starting with Chinese netizens expressing their hoped that Taiwan would “shake some more” (first reported by Apple Daily), a type of animosity reminiscent of the reported “celebrations” in some Chinese circles after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, in which upwards of 16,000 people lost their lives. Again, not every Chinese held such thoughts, but there were enough of them for the message to get noticed, enough that it would undermine Beijing’s efforts to woo the Taiwanese. Such expressions left no doubt that the Taiwanese somehow deserve death and destruction for refusing to be annexed by China, putting their authors in the same league as Evangelical Christians who posit that natural disasters are heavenly retribution for a country choosing to legalize same-sex marriage. That, dear reader, isn’t “soft power.”

Then there were absurd reports that Taiwanese rescuers were actively rescuing Japanese nationals trapped in the rumble first and Chinese last; and that in accepting help from Japanese rescuers but not from the Chinese, Taiwan was displaying a “colonial mindset.” And then the Chinese foreign ministry had to complain about Japanese assistance and condolences to Taiwan, warning that this was a veiled attempt to create “one China” and “one Taiwan.” Meanwhile, Chinese netizens were busy bombarding President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook and Twitter pages — strangely enough, Chinese seem to have little difficulty accessing services that are otherwise blocked in China — with boundless hostility, name-calling and even going as far (or low) as to criticize her official photographer, who accompanied her on her visit to quake-hit areas in Hualien. Other, seemingly more positive messages, again couldn’t help but drill in the message of “one blood” and unity, a necessary “reminder” which inevitably dragged the whole effort back into the realm of politics.

Yes, there is selectiveness in choosing which messages emanating from China are reported on in Taiwanese media. But there is a sufficient amount of hostile and vindictive ones to set a pattern and for it to get noticed by the people who are on the receiving end. In other words, “rough power” isn’t an aberration. It is a fact, a phenomenon, and a force that even in times of need contributes to further alienation and silences those back in China who want to help for the sake of helping. It reminds the Taiwanese people that in prior traumas (921 earthquake, SARS outbreak), China had also put politics above the need to save Taiwanese lives.


J Michael Cole

J Michael Cole

J. Michael Cole (M.A. War Studies, Royal Military College of Canada) is chief editor of Taiwan Sentinel, a Senior Non Resident Fellow with the China Policy Institute and the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK, and an Associate Researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC). He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in Ottawa.

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