When news of Nancy Pelosi’s potential visit to Taiwan crept into China’s state media late last month, there was a sense of shock and panic. News outlets condemned the US, suggesting it was a breach of the “one-China principle” and that Joe Biden was “hypocritical” in saying he was unable to rein in the House speaker. For a few days, this message echoed across the country’s news outlets.
The fury resonated online through the writings of pundits and military bloggers. “The old witch,” some called Pelosi. “The old American woman,” others referred to her. Hu Xijin, a nationalist firebrand and former editor of the Global Times, even advised Chinese jets to obstruct Pelosi’s plane. And “if those are still ineffective, I think it is OK too to shoot down Pelosi’s plane”, he wrote, to much fanfare.
In Chinese society today, such nationalistic rhetoric often creates an echo chamber, especially on issues related to China’s sovereignty. Beijing considers Taiwan a part of China’s own territory. Generations of Chinese leaders have wanted to “take it back”, and they have not renounced the option of a military takeover as a last resort.
For a few days, Weibo hashtags criticising Pelosi and reiterating China’s resolve in deterring her remained some of the top trending topics. In the days that followed, a slew of defiant statements appeared in almost all official outlets. China’s foreign ministry spokespeople, who have been known for their “wolf warrior” style in recent years, continued to talk tough, and many commenters responded well to their harsh anti-American rhetoric.
“The will of the people cannot be defied, and those who play with fire will perish by it,” Zhao Lijian declared, echoing the warning of his president, Xi Jinping, to Biden last week. “It is believed the US side is fully aware of China’s strong and clear message.” His boss, Hua Chunying, also invoked the memories of Mao Zedong, who in 1946 called America a “paper tiger”: “In appearance, the reactionaries are terrifying, but in reality they are not so powerful.”
The mood intensified by the warning from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). When news of Pelosi’s visit was first leaked, the PLA was preparing for the celebration of its 95th founding anniversary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as Pelosi embarked on her tour of Asia, the military vowed again that it “will not sit idly by” if the US politician eventually touches down in Taiwan.
Then on Tuesday night, Pelosi appeared in Taipei. By then, Hu’s bellicose post suggesting downing her flight had been deleted by Twitter for violating rules. “Taiwan is close to the Chinese mainland and Beijing has sufficient cards at hand,” Hu said, shortly after the 82-year-old California democrat arrived. “We will play them one by one confidently. The PLA is announcing a series of actions.”
It was also a huge event for China’s media operators, despite their hostility towards Pelosi. One state-owned website even set up a livestream on its official Weibo channel. At one point, 70 million viewers tuned in at the same time to watch Pelosi arriving in Taiwan, with many viewers commenting “national unification!”.
“Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan also created a sense of unity on social media, which was flooded with comments expressing support for the Chinese military and calls for a unification with Taiwan,” said Manya Koetse, who runs WhatsOnWeibo website. “Multiple netizens also said: ‘I hope that when I wake up tomorrow, we’ll be unified with Taiwan.’ I’d never seen such strong unification sentiments on Weibo before this week.”
Koetse added that the Pelosi saga reminded her of last year’s return of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer from Canada. “Ahead of Meng’s arrival in China, there were days of buildup in rhetoric – just like this time around with Pelosi. But of course Meng was a symbol of national pride, but Pelosi was a humiliation to China.”
Having vowed to respond, the PLA announced it would conduct large-scale drills and missile tests around the island of Taiwan from Thursday. State media said this was to show how reckless Pelosi had been. The military exercises eventually put Asia on edge and invited calls from Asian and Europeans leaders to exercise restraint.
Yet that was not enough for some. “I’m still angry! The four-day military exercise is too short. If a normalised round-the-island cruise is formed, I will admit that it is not a loss!” one Weibo user wrote. Another said. “If there is no follow-up action after the military exercise, then this time it is a complete failure of diplomacy and public opinion, and there is no point in saying too much.”
They are not alone. A Beijing resident, Ou, who goes by his surname, said that when he saw Taipei 101 lit up for Pelosi as a warm welcome, that was a “huge humiliation for China”. “As a big nation with 1.4 billion people, we should not eat our words when it comes to uniting Taiwan,” he said. “We have the capability.”
But Jin Lihang*, a Taiwanese man who lives in Beijing, said he was worried. “It felt that Pelosi’s visit was exactly the kind of excuse the PLA was looking for to show what it would look like when the ‘military option’ is deployed in earnest one day. It seems the whole country may soon be on a war footing. This is scary.”
The day before the drills began on Thursday, the Global Times quoted Herman Shuai, a retired Taiwan lieutenant general, saying the exercise areas were a “template” for “locking down Taiwan”. “This blockage [of Taiwan] could be part of action plans for future reunification-by-force operations,” he said.
Hu, having just failed to deter Pelosi, is now under fire. “Hu Xijin’s longstanding rhetoric has made it clear that he loves war, desires war and is relentlessly promoting it, even at the expense of kidnapping our country’s credibility,” said Ren Yi, another influential pro-government blogger who has millions of followers and who goes by the nickname Chairman Rabbit.
He asked: “Hu Xijin harms the country and hurts the people. What is he really going after?”
*Name changed to protect the person’s identity