When Chinese state media reported on the results of Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this month, they gave nothing away: “Results show that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidates Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim were elected as the leader and deputy of the Taiwan region,” a terse official release from Xinhua News Agency reported. This was the first big election in a global year of democracy, unfolding just across the strait, and with far-reaching consequences for Beijing’s foreign policy — but it was summed up in just 75 words.

For observers expecting fire and brimstone in the wake of an election that Beijing has watched closely, the relative quiet of the Xinhua release, which set the tone for “mainstream” coverage, might have come as a surprise. But fiery language could be found elsewhere. In English and other languages, state media were fuming by comparison, condemning President-elect Lai and the DPP.

During Taiwan’s election on January 13, 2024, presidential ballots at a local polling station are called out (唱票) one by one (at left), placed in their respective piles on the table, and then noted for each candidate on strips of white paper using the character “zheng” (正).  Image: David Bandurski.

How do we account for this dichotomy? The stiff poker face in Chinese, and the snarling wolf warrior in English? In fact, these varying reactions, which have played out in the past for international stories China’s leadership regards as highly sensitive, offer a glimpse at how state media handle sharply differing priorities for domestic and international audiences. 

While China insists Taiwan is an internal affair, and that the rest of the world should simply keep its nose out, the bulk of the coverage of the elections in state media was directed externally, at foreign readers. Internally, silence reigned.

Tight Lips for the Domestic Audience

Xinhua, with its three-line official release, or tonggao (通稿), was the first PRC source to break the news. In all likelihood, given the sensitivity of the matter, other media across the country would have been instructed to follow Xinhua’s lead, even if that meant there was little to go on. The release referred to Lai Ching-te (賴清德) and Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) only as the “elected leader and deputy leader of the Taiwan region” (台湾地区正副领导人), emphasizing what China insists is Taiwan’s subordinate position as a Chinese province, and sidestepping any recognition of Lai and Hsiao as the president and vice-president-elect of the country.

Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, the release said nothing about the political positions of the DPP, or why the party’s win might be significant. The voting results for Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan (立法院), were also briefly outlined, but what each party stood for and how the body’s composition had changed were not. Had the goal of the Xinhua release been to convey the official position of the Chinese leadership on the elections, this would have been a curious omission. After all, the DPP’s commitment to defending Taiwan’s sovereignty and strengthening ties with democratic allies has been a point of contention for China, and the DPP’s failure to secure a majority in the parliament might be interpreted as favorable to China’s interests.

But these details were left out because revealing them in a domestic media report from the CCP’s official news agency would potentially invite discussion internally of the details of the election outcome — including that the DPP won an unprecedented third term in the Presidential Office. As the Xinhua release was meant to “guide” the tone of domestic coverage, the leadership opted for a cautious approach.

The Xinhua notice was reproduced, unaltered, in the next day’s edition of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily (人民日報), where it appeared on page four, and in scores of other state media, including the China Daily (中國日報), published by the State Council Information Office, China Youth Online, the news website of the Chinese Communist Youth League’s China Youth Daily, and Taiwan.cn, a website operated directly by the CCP’s Taiwan Work Office.

One notable, but only slight, exception to the clipped Xinhua coverage in official Party media was a report that appeared in Fujian Daily (福建日報), the official mouthpiece of the Fujian Provincial Committee of the CCP. It published additional remarks from Zhang Ming (張明) Secretary-General of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, who repeated official talking points about territorial integrity. “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing the whole of China, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of China’s territory,” Zhang said.

A small report on page six of the official Fujian Daily on January 15, 2024, adds official talking points from Zhang Ming (張明), secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

It is not uncommon for official Party media in Fujian province, which sits directly across the strait from Taiwan, to offer slightly more coverage of Taiwanese affairs, always with an emphasis on matters of sovereignty and territorial integrity — or playing up the shortcomings of the Taiwanese government in content directed at Taiwanese as well as local populations that often have close social and kinship ties across the straits. Kinship ties also figure prominently in Chinese state propaganda on cross-strait relations.

The same role over election news was played by the Taiwan Affairs Office (國台辦), where spokesperson Chen Binhua (陳斌華) stressed that the election results were irrelevant to the “inevitable” force of unification. The outcome, said Chen, demonstrated that the DPP no longer represented mainstream public opinion in Taiwan, since the party won less than 50 percent of the popular vote.

Loose Cannons for the Outside World

In stark contrast to the subdued and largely restrained coverage by state media internally, the reaction to Taiwan’s elections from international-facing, foreign-language state media was considerably more colorful. Leading the charge was the Global Times, a commercial spin-off of the official People’s Daily that generally strikes a more combative tone on international affairs. The newspaper’s online English-language commentary warned that “the initiative on solving the Taiwan question firmly lies with the Chinese mainland” and “the mainland has both the strength and determination to resolve the Taiwan question once and for all.” This thinly veiled threat of military force should Lai “cross the red line” was complemented by another article threatening economic consequences should Taiwan move in the direction of de jure independence.

In a commentary piece for the China Daily, again in English, Chinese University of Hong Kong sociology professor Lau Siu-kai accused Taiwan, under the DPP, of becoming “increasingly arrogant and overbearing.” In this framing, Taiwan — routinely subject to threats of armed violence and economic coercion like those issued by the Global Times — was portrayed as the true source of cross-strait tensions. Despite the fact that it was the Taiwanese themselves who determined the direction of their government through a democratic election, Lau dismissed the country as a mere “pawn” of the United States, saying that it had “no autonomy and dignity left.”

In fact, threats to Taiwan’s autonomy from Beijing have likely been a decisive factor in handing the DPP repeated presidential election victories. Recent polling from the Pew Research Center has shown that 66 percent of Taiwanese view China as a major threat, as opposed to 45 percent who say the same of US influence in the region.

In externally directed coverage like the above, academics and other commentators were often used as channels for more hardline viewpoints that were absent from official state media coverage internally, and this was combined with redirection away from questions of democratic governance and toward major power rivalry and alleged interference.

Two days after the election, the Global Times shared a short interview with Victor Gao (高志凱), a guest professor at China’s Suzhou University who contributes a regular column to the outlet. Gao labeled Taiwan “Washington’s proxy” and said that if Taiwan’s government cared about its people it would acquiesce to China, which has “momentum on [its] side.”

In externally directed coverage, academics and other commentators were often used as channels for more hardline viewpoints that were absent from official state media coverage internally.

Adding to the torrent of externally directed statements on the Taiwan election was China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), which remained active on this issue through its array of global social media accounts on platforms like Twitter (X) and Facebook. The ministry issued a clipped release in English on January 13, the day of the election, that was not included in Chinese on the MFA site. It also weighed in at a press conference on January 15, two days after the election, emphasizing what is a sticking point for the Chinese leadership, that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.”

But the focus again was away from electoral politics in Taiwan, and squarely on questions of external interference, particularly from the United States. A statement from the US State Department on the election earned a strong rebuttal from the MFA on January 14, which foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying (華春瑩) recapitulated through her account on X: “The Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s core interests and the first red line that must not be crossed in China-US relations,” she posted. “We urge the US to stop interactions of an official nature with Taiwan and stop sending any wrong signal to the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence.’”

Nationalist Outliers on the Taiwan Question

Exceptions to the above-mentioned pattern — of state media restraint internally and active amplification of state talking points externally — were exceptionally rare in the wake of the Taiwan elections. However, one of the most prominent examples was Shanghai’s Guangcha.cn (观察者), a privately-held outlet founded in 2012 by Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li. Guancha, or “Observer,” maintains close ties with influential figures who have the leadership’s ear, including Zhang Weiwei (张维为), the staunchly nationalist and anti-Western intellectual who heads up Fudan University’s China Institute (and who also led a collective study session of the CCP Politburo in May 2021 dealing with external propaganda.)

Guancha, which has built a strong domestic audience among young Chinese around nationalist talking points that often intersect with those of the Global Times, offered internally-directed coverage of the Taiwan elections that mirrored the tone and character of much external propaganda. It also applied the aforementioned two tactics — namely, focusing on sovereignty and Western interference, and citing ostensibly independent experts with close state ties supporting CCP positions.

The day after the election, Guancha posted an interview-based article — the outlet is prevented under its registration from reporting news — that led with the basic Xinhua release content before a play-by-play of an interview by the BBC with Wang Wen (王文), dean of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. Like Zhang Weiwei, who has claimed him as a “close friend,” Professor Wang is an oft-cited critic of the West and a proponent of nationalist positions. The article quoted Wang Wen’s viewpoints, including those on sovereignty and territorial integrity, as though the scholar was in conflict with the BBC journalist.

At one point, the article read: “During the interview, although the BBC presenter kept falsely relying on so-called ‘democracy’ to lead the conversation, claiming that ‘independence’ sentiment is getting stronger, Wang Wen said this was an ideological gap that would be closed with time, and there is a need to guard against the interference of the US and other external forces.” At several points, the article mentioned the scholar’s “refutation of the other side” (反驳对方) in a way that seemed to mirror China’s “wolf warrior” approach to foreign policy. The headline relayed Wang’s hardline assessment of the situation following the DPP victory, stating outright that “if the DPP authorities dare to declare ‘Taiwan independence,’ then the result can only be unification by force.”

This more directly provocative take on the Taiwan elections and China’s position was not shared across other websites inside China, where such cross-sharing is limited to a sanctioned list of sources, though it was re-posted through the Sina News app. Meanwhile, Guancha‘s Weibo post on the Wang Wen BBC interview received little engagement, a possible sign, given the outlet’s strong following of close to 20 million, that the reach of the post was being limited through technical means in order to avoid a spillover of social media discussion.

For the Chinese Communist Party, Taiwan remains an issue of extreme sensitivity, and this is especially true at election time when the free and open nature of the political process across the straits has the potential to reflect on deeper questions of political legitimacy in China. When it comes to domestic Chinese audiences, the less said about Taiwanese democracy the better.

Dalia Parete


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