The video apology of Taiwanese K-pop performer Chou Tzuyu over a previous online video in which she held the flag of the Republic of China (the name by which Taiwan is internationally known) has taken an unexpected turn. It has morphed into a spontaneously organized movement by mainland Chinese netizens, via Facebook, intended to “destroy pro-independence elements in Taiwan through civilized methods”.
As Taiwanese netizens had prepared for their visits, the crusade ended up becoming an entertaining war of emoji and a lesson in the ways of the open Internet for those Chinese who participated.
While Taiwanese consider the teenage performer to be a victim of mainland Chinese netizens’ bullying, the trolls claim that pro-independent forces have made use of the incident to create cross-strait conflict. China doesn't recognize Taiwan's de facto independence, which stretches back to the late 1940s, when the defeated Kuomintang forces retreated to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war.
Feeling frustrated, the administrator of a popular forum within the umbrella of Web giant Baidu, Emperor Ba, decided to mobilize its community members on an expedition to three Facebook targets — the pages of Sanlih E-Television, Taiwan Apple Daily News and the newly elected President Tsai Ling-Wen.
According to the record in Baidu, Emperor Ba has around 20.5 million members; the population in Taiwan is 23.4 million. Though the movement was self-organized and participants had to climb over the Great Firewall in order to visit blocked sites themselves, it's likely that their action wouldn't have taken place without a nod from mainland Chinese authorities.
‘Persuade brothers to come home’
The action was set for 7 p.m. on January 20. According to one participant who did an interview with website Pingwest, the coordination team urged the virtual soldiers to adopt a “fun” strategy:
尽量发吃的玩的，只骂“ 台独 ”不骂 “ 台湾同胞 ”，和外国人好好交流，不要带脏话，不要骂人。“我们是劝出走的兄弟回来的，不是赶别人分家的”。
Post interesting messages like food or tourist sites, only curse at the independence advocates, not Taiwanese fellows. Talk reasonably to foreigners. ‘We are to persuade brothers to come home, not to split up the family.’
Since the movement was meant to “persuade the brothers to come home”, some of the standardized emoji are foods and tourist sites, with Emperor Ba's stamp on the right hand top:
The participants were divided into six sub-teams: Front Team, Enemy Research Team, Recruitment Team, Weapon Team (standardized comments and emoji), Translation Team, Report and Support Team (filing Facebook reports against enemies and giving ‘Likes’ to comrades).
More detailed instructions included the following (via Initium Media's Facebook):
參戰須知：1不要罵人 2表情上的「中華人民共和國專用」改為「打台獨專用」 3避免用習大大做表情包，以免對方改圖 4評論不要速度太快。避免封號。如果號掛了某寶有賣 5 開vpn時候不要登陸自己重要賬號，不安全 6 帝吧出征，寸草不生，腦殘不死，聖戰不止。
Instructions for the battle: 1. Don't curse; 2. Don't use ‘Republic of China’ in emoji, Use ‘defeat the Taiwan independence advocates”‘; 3. Avoid using “Uncle Xi” [referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping] in the emoji, they may photoshop the image; 4. Don't post your comment too quickly, the account will be suspended; 5. If your account is suspended, you can buy another account at Txxbxx; 6. When you open your virtual private network (VPN), don't use your principal email, it is not secure; 6. Emperor Ba expedition, all grass will be burned, the holy war won't end until all the brain-damaged are dead.
The ‘little pink’ brigade
Major messages to be delivered outside the Great Firewall were translated into different languages. Below is one of the translated posts (via Pingwest):
It's ok to wave Taiwanese flag. It's ok that she said she isn't a Chinese but a Taiwanese. It's even ok that they think Taiwan is an independent county. (But don't say that in China's land, for on the cover of their passport are the words ‘Republic of China’. If Taiwan were an independent country, please show us its national flag in the UN. In both the mainland and Taiwan, we are receiving different educations. Therefore, differences existing between people in Taiwan and the mainland can be understood and accepted well. But anyone who wants to make money in the mainland of China must respect the nation. She can choose to stay in Taiwan, doing whatever and saying whatever she likes, which has nothing to do with us. What's more, as far as we are concerned, she's just a teenager and it's shameless of her company to have forced her to make an apology. Neither the Chinese government nor the Chinese media forced her to do that or forced her out.
As the organizers of this effort adopted a “soft” and “communicative” approach, mainland netizens who did not participate referred to them as “little pink” as opposed to fully “red” nationalists. Here is one example of the type of commentary which the incident fostered:
I have one comment on this little pink incident: the eunuchs are stepping out of the Imperial Palace. They suddenly step out from the pig's farm to persuade others to get castrated. Then they return and continue their Imperial dream.
Taiwanese see the humorous side
As the news about the movement had travelled to Taiwan one day before it was launched, the Taiwanese were well prepared to make fun of the mainland Chinese trolls.
Sanlih E-Television welcomed them with a long list of banned words, including: Falungong, June 4 Tiananmen, China democracy party, Xi Jin-ping stupid ass, Taiwan Independence, Tibet Independence, 1989, Dalai Lama, Xinjiang Independence, single party dictatorship, and nine commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party, just to name a few.
The page administrator also posted photos of people waving the Republic of China's national flags, as well as news that would agitate their visitors, such as the petition to urge the UK government to recognize Taiwan as a country.
Some Taiwanese typed in simplified Chinese characters and suggested that pro-unification Taiwanese politician, Tsai Cheng-Yuan, was Tsai Ing-Wen's brother, in order to mislead mainland Chinese trolls into hurling profanities at his Facebook page.
Some posted hyperlinks to pornography sites and banned news, claiming that they linked to Taiwan independence advocates’ Facebook accounts.
Both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese claimed victory in this Facebook war of emoji. Win or lose, at least both sides enjoyed the fight and had fun.
Learning how to ‘climb over the wall’
Perhaps the biggest ripple effect of the entire campaign was that more mainland Chinese netizens learned how to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to climb over the Great Firewall — and apart from just visiting Facebook, they went beyond, following dissenting voices on Twitter. @wentommy gained 490 new followers in just one day:
— 文涛 (@wentommy) January 20, 2016
The propaganda department is also aware of these repercussions — a notice concerning the action was passed along to major media outlets and circulated on social media:
— 墙外楼 (@letscorp) January 23, 2016
‘Emperor Ba Holy War’. The incident has become complicated. Local media has to cool down, don't recommend this as a hot topic. Be aware of and delete negative comments making use of the incident to attack the country's system, cross-strait relations. Furthermore, stop harmful information about ‘climbing over the wall’ from being distributed.