Tsai tweets Taiwan back into the global conversation

A sample tweet from President Tsai Ing-wen: "China's coercion & threats won't bring two sides closer, they will drive our two ppls apart. We will never surrender to such intimidation" Photo: Reuters

TAIPEI - During the past year, China has doubled down on its campaign to reduce Taiwan's presence on the world stage, whether by luring away its few remaining diplomatic allies -- most recently Panama -- or blocking its participation in international organisations such as Interpol and the World Health Organization.

Now President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan is trying to tweet the island back into the global conversation.

Tsai had her first encounter with Twitter's reach in December, when Donald Trump, newly elected to the White House, wrote on Twitter that she had called to congratulate him. His announcement made headlines around the world. It was believed to have been the first time a US president or president-elect had spoken with a leader of the island since at least 1979, when the United States broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, as part of its recognition of the People's Republic of China.

Weeks later, Tsai revived her moribund Twitter account, posting regularly in English and sometimes in Japanese. Since then, the number of her followers has nearly tripled. Her account is @iingwen.

Her office says her rekindled interest was spurred by outreach from Twitter itself, not by the Trump episode. But there are certain parallels between her and Trump. Where Trump uses the service to bypass what he considers a biased news establishment and to address the public directly, Tsai appears to see it as a means to circumvent the diplomatic isolation imposed by China.

"Twitter, and more broadly, digital diplomacy, provides Taiwan with an easy and cost-effective way to connect and engage internationally," said Danielle Cave, a Google Policy Fellow at the Digital Asia Hub, a nonprofit organisation based in Hong Kong that researches society and the internet.

"Frankly, Taiwan's future is tenuous, and their international space is increasingly limited at a time when they need their voice to be heard more than ever."

China claims self-governed Taiwan as part of its territory, and its diplomatic relations with other countries are conditional on their agreement not to recognise the island as independent. That has led to Taiwan's exclusion from the United Nations and other international forums.

Only 20 countries maintain formal relations with Taiwan, a list that has shrunk by two since Tsai took office in May 2016. She has resisted demands from Beijing that she endorse the so-called One China principle, which holds that Taiwan and China are part of a single country, although each side has its own views on how that country is defined.

In December, Trump briefly cast doubt on America's adherence to its One China policy, when he broke with long-standing practice by sharing a call with Tsai. He later said he would honour the policy, but his Twitter message announcing the conversation stunned China watchers and gave Tsai her first taste of global exposure on social media.

Weeks later, Tsai stopped by Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, on her way back from visiting diplomatic allies in Central America. The company had contacted Tsai's office about reviving her account, according to Vincent Chao, chief of staff to the secretary-general at the Presidential Office.

Tsai, who joined Twitter in 2010, had previously posted in Chinese, but she stopped in May 2014, primarily because relatively few people in Taiwan use the service, Chao said. For domestic engagement, Tsai posts in Chinese on her Facebook page, which has more than 2.1 million followers.

Describing the past few months of Twitter diplomacy as "fairly successful", Chao said that the number of people who follow the account had risen since January from 36,800 to more than 100,000. They include foreign journalists and others who can communicate Taiwan's positions.

"It's followed by journalists from most major publications from around the world," he said. "Increasingly, we're seeing interest from politicians in the US, Japan and other democracies."

Alex Huang, a spokesman for the Presidential Office, noted: "The broad role of this is to increase international exposure for the president and Taiwan."

"There's a core group of people working on Twitter that have been with President Tsai for quite a while, and we also have people who provide input from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government agencies on specific issues," he said.

For her part, Cave said: "The president's tweets are clearly crafted for an international audience."

She added: "Most of her tweets are concerned with foreign affairs, and given how little international media the president has done since she took office, it has become the primary vehicle to keep track of Taiwan's international priorities and how the president sees cross-strait relations."

Since her return to Twitter, Tsai has posted more than 100 times. Initial messages rarely broached sensitive subjects. But that has changed in recent weeks. In May, she wrote 13 times about Taiwan's exclusion from the World Health Assembly, which happened at Beijing's behest.

Many recent posts have dealt with attempts by China to isolate Taiwan, including Panama's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of recognising Beijing.

"China's coercion & threats won't bring two sides closer, they will drive our two ppls apart. We will never surrender to such intimidation" she wrote hours after the news broke.

On the anniversary of the June 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Tsai also posted several times, saying the protesters "inspired a generation" and offering to share Taiwan's experiences in its own transition to democracy.

Although Twitter is blocked in China, some citizens who employ virtual private networks to bypass their country's "great firewall" are clearly following Tsai's account, and even the state news media is taking note.

Chao said that when Tsai wrote her Tiananmen anniversary messages, "there were a lot of Chinese netizens that posted comments saying, 'We hope you can help encourage China to become democratic,'"while others were critical. "We also had Chinese people saying, 'This has nothing to do with Taiwan.'"

Earlier this month, People's Daily used Twitter to call attention to an article titled "Taiwan leader's Twitter post infuriates the public," in response to her message in which she thanked Japan, in Japanese, for its support of Taiwan's bid to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Chao welcomed the new online arena for cross-strait engagement.

"It's not just Chinese people being angry at President Tsai," he said. "Hopefully they see it as an area where they can freely discuss their views on different situations."

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