As China keeps dropping missiles around Taiwan in its largest-ever military drills in the region, Beijing has also ramped up its propaganda push to assert its claim on the self-ruled island. Its latest argument: Taiwan is part of China because there are dozens of restaurants serving Chinese regional cuisines in Taiwan’s capital.
“Palates don’t cheat,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted on Sunday, citing dozens of dumpling and noodle restaurants she found in Taipei using online maps provided by the Chinese search engine giant Baidu. “Taiwan has always been a part of China. The long lost child will eventually return home.”
The statement was immediately mocked by Twitter users as nonsensical and turned into a meme.
“The equivalent is like saying the Americans belong to the United Kingdom because they speak English and have fish and chips restaurants,” American-Taiwanese journalist Clarissa Wei told VICE World News.
The effort to use the cultural and historical ties between Taiwan and China to press its claim on the island underscores Beijing’s eagerness to alter the delicate balance that has kept the peace in the region for decades, seizing on U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan last week. Pelosi was the most senior U.S. official to travel to the island in 25 years, a trip China saw as a violation of its sovereignty.
China’s military exercises around Taiwan, initially set to end Sunday, continued into the week. The Taiwanese government said the drills are a rehearsal for an invasion and has begun its own artillery drills to simulate a defense against an attack.
Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said Tuesday that China is trying to turn the East and South China Seas and the Taiwan Strait—some of the busiest waterways for global trade—into internal waters. A U.S. defense official accused China of trying to “salami slice their way into a new status quo,” although the Pentagon believes that China won’t invade Taiwan in the next two years.
While ridiculed on Twitter, the Chinese spokesperson Hua’s tweet about the abundance of regional Chinese food in Taipei has found a receptive audience on Chinese social media, where nationalism is running high and there is vocal support for an annexation of Taiwan.
“We are all waiting for Taiwan to return home,” one user on Twitter-like Weibo said in a popular comment in response to Hua’s remarks.
Hua’s statement came after Baidu Maps added granular, street-level data of Taiwan, which is listed as a province in the app. Many Chinese social media users also marveled at dozens of streets named after Chinese cities and cited them as proof that Taiwanese residents long to be part of China.
But Wei, the Taiwan-based journalist and author of the upcoming cookbook “Made in Taiwan,” said China is “weaponizing Chinese culture and food against the diaspora”.
“Hua implies that Taiwan is Chinese because we have Chinese culture. But being Chinese—culturally and ethnically—does not mean we are part of the People’s Republic of China,” Wei said, referring to the official name of China.
While the logic behind Hua’s tweet doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it was a calculated move to resonate with her intended, domestic audience, said Gina Anne Tam, an assistant professor of East Asian history at Trinity University in San Antonio.
“The strategy is emotional—to muddy a logically indefensible case with appeals to vague feelings,” Tam told VICE World News.
But China would lose the narrative battle if its claims hinge on Taiwanese people wanting to be part of the People’s Republic. As few as 1.3 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million population favors unification, while most prefer maintaining the status quo, so that the independent governance and way of life they enjoy today remain unchanged.
The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party won a civil war and the Nationalist Party retreated to the island of Taiwan, where it continued its rule under the name of the Republic of China. Many Taiwanese maintain strong cultural if not also familial ties with their Chinese counterparts, and cuisines from both places are appreciated across the strait separating the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.
Politically, however, relationships between Beijing and Taipei have ebbed and flowed over the years, and an increasingly powerful and assertive China has triggered fears of an invasion. President Xi Jinping and generations of Chinese leaders have vowed to “reunify” with the self-ruled island and have not ruled out the use of force to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control.