Canada-based “Fiona” is the unlikeliest of rabid, Chinese patriots.
She was born on the northern mainland but went to Taiwan as an exchange student in 2012. She grew up on Taiwanese
movies and soap operas and made friends on the island before leaving for Canada to pursue a postgraduate degree.
Yet when Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party’s pro-independence candidate, won the island’s presidential race on January 16, Fiona joined the 20,000 or so internet users from the mainland who flooded Tsai’s Facebook page with a barrage of pro-unification posts.
The volley of postings across the Taiwan Strait was so intense, the virtual private networks that mainlanders use to circumvent censors crashed within hours. While they were down, many overseas Chinese like Fiona relayed the debate to others around the world.
“It doesn’t matter where I am. It’s like caring about a family business,” said Fiona, who joined only after learning of the operation hours after it began.
“The confidence of overseas Chinese is built on the power of China.”
READ MORE: Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook page bombarded with comments attacking any move by island towards independence
Like Fiona, Kucha, or “pants” in Putonghua, is a university graduate and in his 20s. He’s a big fan of the late great Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng but has never been to the island. Instead, Kucha learned about its culture through a Taiwanese friend, travel articles about the island and watching the news. When Tsai emerged as the clear winner, Kucha swung into action, co-organising the attack on her online profile. His goal, he said, was direct cross-strait communication.
“People on either side have a deep misunderstanding of each other, further intensified by media coverage,” Kucha said.
Kucha said he was in charge of public communication and taking questions from the press. There were divisions in charge of producing emojis that symbolise the anti-independence stance, while others were tasked with posting comments on Facebook pages. Tutorials on using VPNs were also available in the forum.
But as the message campaign wore on, much of the ambition for “direct communication” descended into name-calling, with mainlanders slamming their cross-strait counterparts as “Taiwan separatists”, while the Taiwanese deployed a derogatory word for the Chinese that originated with the Japanese.
Kucha acknowledged that some of the comments were hostile, saying some participants reported and apologised for foul comments.
But he argued that some hostility was necessary for the campaign to remain vital, and quoted a Chinese saying: “Water that is too clear has no fish.”
For Fiona, any exchange – even an aggressive one – was progress.
READ MORE: China’s internet regulator vows to make Communist Party ‘strongest voice in cyberspace’
“A verbal attack is also a way of communication. It’s better than no communication at all,” she said. It was at least better than some of the selective coverage by media, Fiona believes.
“News by pro-independence media is rubbish. Coverage on China is either hostile or sarcastic.”
She accused the DPP of fuelling pro-independence sentiment only to win votes, while disregarding people’s economic interests.
When she went to Taiwan to study, she was taken aback by an ignorance over mainlanders. “They were shocked when I told them many mainlanders used iPhones … They thought all we did online was read People’s Daily,” she said, laying the blame on biased media.
But it’s an open question whether such exchanges will bridge any differences. Yang Lixian, a researcher at Beijing’s National Society of Taiwan Studies, thinks they are a force for good. “The divide is already there. It’s better to have an early showdown,” Yang said.
“It also proves that Beijing’s pro-unification policies are backed by public opinion.”
But Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a former Mainland Affairs Council deputy minister, is not convinced.
Cross-strait relations are, after all, people to people relations, and mutual attacks through the keyboard are not necessarily helpful to finding solutions in the real world.”
Fiona plans to stay in Canada after graduating. “Everybody has their right to choose their lifestyle. I prefer a slower-paced life,” she said.
“The social atmosphere in China is more materialistic now. Canada has reached a different stage of development and has more diversified values.”
Yet when talking about the Great Firewall, Fiona took a different stance on the free flow of information.
The firewall protected domestic companies from global competition during the early days of the online economy, she said.
“I think it is necessary to protect the internet business of China. It’s like a tariff,” she said.
“It was helpful for Chinese internet start-ups. Some of them became internationally competitive companies.”