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Tsai Ing-wen Through the Lens of China’s State Media: A Critical Discourse Analysis

The article provides a Critical Discourse Analysis of the four key Chinese state-controlled media houses- CCTV, CGTN, and Global Times and their propaganda efforts to set a certain image of Tsai Ing-Wen, especially after her meetings with the two speakers of the US House of Representatives.

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Controlling discourses on Taiwan is at the forefront of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) propaganda efforts. Heretofore, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) resentment against those it frames as separatists always translated into acrimonious narratives within state media outlets. Thereupon, the election of Tsai Ing-wen蔡英文 in 2016 opened an era of deteriorating cross-strait relations, as epitomized by China’s assertive response to Tsai’s meeting with Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in August 2022, and her successor McCarthy in 2023 (MFA, 2023). How does the PRC’s state media portray Tsai Ing-wen? This article operates a Critical Discourse Analysis on four state media outlets, namely CCTV, CGTN and the Mandarin and English versions of The Global Times, between August 2022 and April 2023.

Taiwan is a Top Priority

The official stances of the party-state do not equate to state media discourse. Nonetheless, both are closely connected by a vast propaganda system (宣教系统). China’s propaganda can be divided into two types (Brady, 2006): internal, and external towards both Overseas Chinese and foreigners. It not only consists in defining what can and cannot be said, but also, more proactively, what should be said and how things should be said, as exemplified by the 1996 guidelines on the correct terminologies to use when mentioning Taiwan (Brady 2015b). Indeed, when it comes to the island, the ultimate objective is to achieve “discursive hegemony” both domestically and internationally (Yang & Tang, 2018). CCP’s narrative seeks to constrain Taiwan’s global political outreach (Brady, 2015b), upend the one-China principle, and call for “reunification” under the “one country two systems” formula. Prior to the advent of the internet, media discourse over Taiwan was limited to boilerplate official stances (Brady, 2015b). However, the gradual restoration of cross-strait communication along with the liberalization of Chinese media in the 1990s led to a diversification of narratives over the island and therefore challenged CCP’s discursive hegemony. It is against this background that Xi Jinping’s 习近平 nomination as General Secretary of the CCP in 2012 led to a “new level of assertiveness, confidence, and ambition” in the Party’s external propaganda efforts (Brady, 2015a p. 55).

Tsai Ing-wen’s Election Opened an Era of Turbulent Cross-Strait Relations

The coverage of Taiwan by the PRC's media varies according to who is in charge of the island. The CCP has a long-lasting distrust toward the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its pro-independence leanings. Still, in the 1990s, Taiwan’s first elected president Lee Teng-hui 李登輝 (Kuomintang) was equally despised as “the general representative of Taiwan’s separatist forces, a saboteur of the stability of the Taiwan Strait” as stated in an official document (Bush, 2005, p.71). Its successor Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 (DPP) was at first deemed more flexible, but Beijing rapidly understood Chen’s policies as “one step backwards two steps forward” (Sheng, 2001, p. 137). The return of a KMT president with the election of Ma Ying-jiu 馬英九 in 2008 allowed for warmer cross-strait relations.

The subsequent eight years of relatively “peaceful developments” (Matsuda, 2015) ceased with the 2016 elections that brought DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen to power, and opened, according to the PRC’s Global Times (2016), an “era of uncertainty”. Particularly irritated by her rejection of the “1992 consensus”, the CCP ceased all official communications with Taiwanese authorities in May 2016. Cabestan (2017) contends that the PRC opted for a “divide-and-rule-strategy” consisting in nurturing ties with Taiwanese who oppose the new administration. CCP’s vitriolic reactions to Tsai’s 2016 election and 2020 re-election (Cabestan, 2017; Quirk, 2021) translated into virulent state media narratives.

The “Failing Politician”

Between August 2022 and April 2023, state media discourse revolves around five main themes. Firstly, state media blamed Tsai’s alleged deleterious policies for having spawned a series of “crises”. From food and water shortages to rising housing prices, low salaries, inequalities, or mishandled COVID-19, the Taiwanese population is said to suffer on all fronts. Domestically, CCTV notes a sharp increase in criminality transforming the island into a “paradise of fraud” (诈骗天堂) (CCTV, 2023a). Externally, the degrading regional security “is a nightmare for others who live outside of politics” as we can hear on CGTN. This set of crises has putatively resulted from Tsai’s bad governance, “wrongdoings” and “empty policies and objectives” (空洞的政策和目标) (CCTV, 2022). As a result, all media outlets insist on a growing dissatisfaction among Taiwanese. They depict public outcries (舆论哗然) and strong backlashes (强烈反弹), some even suggesting that “an increasing number of people on the island realize that reunification is beneficial” (Global Times, 2023). CGTN (2023) buttresses such allegations with interviews of “Taiwan residents”: “We are living such a miserable life, Tsai Ing-wen are you listening to us?”.

Secondly, the two Mandarin-speaking media frequently foreground “scandals” (丑闻) as fulcrums for lambasting Tsai and her administration. “Scandals” include the “cigarette smuggling affair” (私烟案) in 2019, and the controversy around Tsai Ing-wen’s doctoral thesis. By the same token, the Global Times published an article on Tsai’s personal assets, in which she is suspiciously described as “extremely wealthy” (非常富有) and blamed for not having declared portions of a recent inheritance (Cheng Dong, 2023). On CCTV (2023a), a guest denounced Tsai’s “culture of reward” (酬庸文化), to wit the promotion of close collaborators who have been involved in scandals or were in charge when dramatic events occurred, such as the 2018 Yilan train derailment.

Thirdly, Tsai’s deleterious policies are not said to stem from mere failure, but rather a willingness to “harm the island”, while she is depicted as a criminal with “selfish motives”. The expressions “distributing seats, sharing the benefits” (排排坐分果果) (CCTV, 2023a), “corrupt” (腐化), “betray”, or “gambler” evoke criminality. Tsai’s objective is to retain power, including beyond the end of her second mandate. As such, she is said to promote loyal individuals to key political or military positions and seek to extend her influence within the party through her successor Lai Ching-te 赖清德. It is to divert public opinion from its failures and contrivances that Tsai relies on provocation vis-à-vis Mainland China, in “collusion” with the United States.

Fourthly, Tsai and her administration are condemned for their undemocratic and oppressive governance. Democracy in Taiwan is an illusion, as argued by Joanna Lei 雷倩, a pro-unification Taiwanese politician, on CGTN (2023). Rather, under this “true authoritarian movement”, Taiwan’s population is “sacrificed”, and suffers from “injustice”. Lei notably brings up Tsai’s “ill-gotten party assets law” (不當黨產處理條例) that aims to deprive its competitor, beginning with the KMT. Besides, Tsai’s administration carries out a conscious policy of “indoctrination” of its population.

Finally, PRC’s media accuse Tsai Ing-wen of “de-Sinicization” along with an effort to promote Japanese identity on the island. Joanna Lei on CGTN (2023) compares Tsai with her two predecessors Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian who all have a “strong Japanese identification and little Chinese identification”. This identity explains Tsai’s policy to “dilute the importance of China, Chinese culture, Chinese language and Chinese heritage”.


Critical Discourse Analysis of four state media outlets reveals a homogenous vituperative discourse on Tsai Ing-wen and her administration. Beyond conveying CCP’s official narrative, emphasis is put on Tsai’s deleterious policies that spawn a series of crises; scandals; criminal intentions; authoritarian methods; and pro-Japan “de-Sinicization”. Interviews of selected Taiwanese and the frequent mention of figures and surveys reveal a strategy of persuasion in lieu of the top-down imposition of narratives. Nonetheless, the degree to which such narratives effectively shape China’s public opinion remains difficult to gauge, as public surveys are scarce and usually unreliable.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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