It has become common for Hollywood stars, sports stars, and well-known brands to apologize to China for crossing its political red lines. Of all of these, any mention or recognition that Taiwan is an independent country is perhaps the most reactive. On May 25, 2021, John Cena apologetically posted a video on his Weibo account announcing that he loves China and the Chinese. This followed an earlier interview in which he identified Taiwan as one of the first “countries” to see his latest film.
Known for its masculine and positive image, Cena met with criticism for its apology, in line with China’s one-China principle. For example, one meme making fun of Cena on Reddit quickly garnered 129k upvotes (support) while another booed John garnered 25k. A well-known Youtuber, Philip DeFranco, called Cena a “coward,” and his video received 1 million views in three days.
Meanwhile, to counter Cena’s message, the #TaiwanIsACountry movement began on Twitter. Many politicians, celebrities, and activists, including US Congressman Steve King (IA-R), entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, software engineer and activist Tracy Chou, hedge fund CEO Kyle Bass, and Sino-American Republican politician Solomon Yue supported this movement . This movement quickly spread beyond America and was trending worldwide. For example, Filipino politician Kim Atienza, Estonian Congressman Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Paraguayan actress Milva Gauto, all of whom have more than 100,000 followers, tweeted #TaiwanIsACountry.
To explore this movement, we crawled all public tweets with the hashtag #TaiwanIsACountry from May 25-29. We found a total of 14,898 tweets with this hashtag. Figure 1 (shown below) shows a timeline of these tweets posted. The number of # TaiwanIsACountry tweets skyrocketed on May 25th and 26th in response to Cena’s apology. Further analysis shows that the content of these tweets also included keywords such as Taiwan and China.
Even if we don’t know how many Twitter users saw these tweets, we can estimate the potential readership based on the number of followers on each Twitter account. In total, the total number of followers who tweeted #TaiwanIsACoutnry is 34,716,326. When only 10% of their followers saw these tweets, around 3 million Twitter users were exposed to this movement.
Using their self-reported geolocation, we successfully collected 5251 of the 14898 tweets. Of those, 57% of those tweets came from the US, 17% from Taiwan, 4% from India, Canada and Hong Kong, and 3% from the UK, Australia and the Philippines. There are also contributions from Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil.
The result shows that this # TaiwanIsACountry movement is not only supported by the American and Taiwanese citizens, but also by members of the #MilkTeaAlliance, an online pro-democracy solidarity movement across East Asia since May 2020. The movement stopped in places like Thailand, Hong . Kong and Taiwan move in because of their ideological conflict with China in the #nnevvy episode. The movement later found allies from India, Brazil and Australia as those countries also became tense with China in late 2020.
The Cena incident shares many similarities with previous movements like this one. For example, during the # TweetForTaiwan movement in July 2020 when the US government launched an online movement to support Taiwan’s accession to the World Health Organization, the movement received global support, particularly from the #MilkTeaAlliance. The strength of this new # TaiwanIsACountry movement suggests that the effects of the # MilkTeaAlliance movement will continue. Such long-term cross-border collaboration could explain why Twitter offered a special emoji for the # MilkTeaAlliance movement in April 2021.
Based on these movements, we can observe that many countries around the world anger China for its warlike behavior and often ask others for an excuse in order to avoid punishment by the country (such as the ban / withdrawal of a film or product from the Chinese market) . The gesture of giving in to Chinese pressure is tantamount to self-censorship and harms freedom of expression in other countries. No wonder the White House is reacting harshly to China’s demands and calling China’s behavior “Orwellian nonsense”. But as Cena shows, printing from China still has some successes.
The development of this incident has foreign policy implications. The fact that many internet users in democracies support #TaiwanIsACountry and dislike what China is doing fits in well with the current US foreign policy towards China. Since Biden took office, the government has taken a tougher stance on China and tried to weaken the country’s influence through multilateral diplomacy. Under this scheme, the US has redoubled its efforts to internationalize the Taiwan issue. For example, the US has put the Taiwan issue on the agenda of meetings with key partners such as Japan, South Korea and within the G7. These meetings led to significant changes, for example when Japan and the European Union issued joint statements relating specifically to Taiwan.
While there is much more to be said in this heated issue, such a dynamic suggests that social movements on Twitter are interlocking with and influencing developments in international politics.
Figure 1. Timeline analysis of # TaiwanIsACountry tweets (n = 14898, May 25-29, 2021)
Figure 2. Content analysis of # TaiwanIsACountry tweets (n = 14898, May 25-29, 2021)
Figure 3. Origins of # TaiwanIsACountry tweets (n = 14898, May 25-29, 2021)
Further reading on e-international relations