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Amidst typhoon rescue efforts in Japan, a Taiwanese diplomat dies. Did misinformation play a role?

Screenshot from a viral video showing a Chinese representative from the Chinese consulate in Osaka, Japan, explaining evacuation efforts to stranded Chinese tourists during Typhoon Jebi in September 2018.

Taiwanese diplomat Su Chii-cherng died by suicide on September 14, 2018, while stationed in Osaka, Japan.

According to NHK (Japan's national broadcasting station), the 61-year-old diplomat left behind a letter saying he was deeply pained by public criticism accusing his office of not doing enough to rescue Taiwanese tourists stranded at the Kansai International Airport in Japan when Typhoon Jebi struck the region in early September 2018.

When mainland Chinese media outlets circulated several stories praising the Chinese consulate in Japan for successfully evacuating its citizens, Taiwanese netizens slammed their own consulate for failing to assist Taiwanese tourists with equal measure.

Some social media reports said that Taiwanese citizens had to feign Chinese identities to get a seat on evacuation buses. Taiwan has been a de-facto self-ruling state since 1949 and the majority of Taiwanese want to distinguish themselves from mainland China. A proclamation of Chinese identity would signal an acceptance of the “One China Principle” and is, therefore, an insult to Taiwanese dignity.

Amidst a flurry of outrage and criticism, Taiwanese authorities tried to clarify that they were following rescue protocols set by the Japanese government, but misinformed criticism and complaints continue circulating online and the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they would thoroughly investigate the situation.

Following the death by suicide of Su Chii-cherng in the early morning of September 14, criticism aimed at his consulate halted. The following day, a journalist group, Taiwan Fact-check Center published a report denouncing the mainland Chinese versions of the rescue story circulated widely online.

Misinformation over evacuation priorities 

According to officials at Japan's Kansai International Airport, Japanese airport authorities arranged evacuation buses for all stranded passengers, regardless of nationality. Japanese authorities rejected a demand by the Chinese consulate to send their own buses.

However, during the evacuation procedures, representatives from China Southern Airlines grouped only mainland Chinese tourists into one of the buses and, after they arrived at the collection point, the Chinese consulate allegedly arranged its own transport to rescue others.

The Chinese consulate in Osaka first shared information about their rescue efforts for Chinese citizens in a brief announcement:

截至日本当地时间9月6日凌晨,驻大阪总领馆协助因台风滞留中国旅客1044人(包括香港同胞117人,澳门同胞5人和台湾同胞32人)分六批安全撤离关西国际机场。

Until September 6 midnight, China consulate in Osaka had assisted 1044 Chinese tourists, including 117 Hong Kong fellows, five Macau fellows and 32 Taiwanese fellows, to retreat from Kansai international airport in six batches.

Another announcement claims the consulate sent representatives to the Kansai airport after midnight on September 4 to discuss a rescue plan that was then implemented by the Japanese authorities on September 5 specifically for Chinese tourists:

经我馆积极协调,日方于9月5日上午11时30分(原计划8时开始,因故推迟)启动集中转运中国旅客工作。

After the consulate’s proactive coordinating work, the Japanese side started transporting Chinese tourists [to downtown transit center] at 11:30 am on September 5 (the original plan was at 8 am but deferred due to other causes).

This gave readers the impression that transit buses arranged at Kansai International Airport was the result of negotiations by the Chinese consulate on behalf of Chinese citizens.

Chinese state-affiliated Guan Cha Net published a video on the night of September 5 further exacerbating this narrative, with Chinese consulate staff reporting that 15 buses had been arranged for Chinese tourists.

The video also shows an interview with a Chinese traveler named Mr. Wang who confirmed that a bus arranged by the Chinese consulate picked up Chinese travelers stranded at the airport, adding that he was proud to be a Chinese passport holder.

The report included a WeChat post:

【中國人先上車】昨天3千人滯留大阪關西機場,中國駐大阪總領事館准備了15輪大巴,優先安排中國公民撤離關西機場,並給大家發了吃喝的,離開機場的時候,日本人和其它國家地區的群眾還在排隊,一眼望不到頭。為強大的祖國點贊。PS 遇到幾個台灣同胞問,我們能上這輛車嗎?統一回答可以呀,只要你覺得自己是中國人就可以上車跟祖國走。

[Chinese get onboard first] Yesterday 3,000 people were trapped at Kansai International Airport, the China consulate in Osaka arranged 15 buses to transport Chinese citizens away from the airport. It also distributed food. When departing the airport, Japanese and people from other countries were still lining up and you could not see where the queue led. Please praise for the strength of our mother country. P.S. We ran into a few Taiwanese fellows who asked if they could get on the bus. We all said yes. If you identify yourself as Chinese, you can get on the bus and follow mother country.

The state-affiliated media outlet Global Times also ran a story on September 6 boasting that Chinese tourists were the first to be evacuated. The report credited the Chinese consulate for rescue coordination:

就在今天一早,被困机场的中国旅客却得知了一个令他们很受感动的好消息:中国领馆来接他们了!

Chinese tourists who were trapped in the airport heard a moving good news early this morning: the China consulate had come to fetch them!

Reports and commentary on the evacuation efforts in Japan originally appeared on September 6 on PTT (a Taiwanese forum). Taiwanese media outlets then picked up the story, eventually running sensational headlines like “Taiwanese follow China bus,” “Taiwanese had to rely on Chinese transportation to get away” and “To get on the bus, one has to pretend Chinese”.

Taiwan's fact-check failure

Taiwanese officials’ continued attempts to clarify the situation fell on deaf ears and netizens continued to blame Taiwanese diplomats such as Chii-cherng in Japan. Taiwanese politician Frank Hsieh attempted to address the misinformed criticism of Taiwan's evacuation response:

中國大阪領事館網站登出他們派巴士車去機場載受困中國旅客,而我們沒有,更傳言有國人偷偷去搭他們的車,還要表明自己是中國人,消息傳出,網民羞憤,有人趁此宣傳感覺持有中華人民共和國護照是驕傲的事情,我的網站因此被灌爆,我現在無暇仔細說明許多查明的細節,承受大家憤怒的出口,也沒有關係。但請大家冷靜想想,如果9/5日私人巴士或汽車可以到機場接人,那麼機場一定大亂,寸步難行,反而不能有效率地疏散。所以日本做法是只准出不准進,所有人都是坐機場的巴士或高速船離開機場到泉佐野站(電車有通)或神戶港。

China consulate in Osaka posted on their website that they had sent buses to the airport to pick up Chinese tourists. On the other hand we did nothing. Some hearsay even claimed that Taiwanese had to proclaim themselves as Chinese in order to get on the buses. The news had enraged [Taiwanese] netizens. Some made use of the incident to propagate the sense of pride in holding a PRC [People's Republic of China] passport. My website was flooded with negative comments. I could not explain all the details at this moment and it is OK for me to take the blame. But please stay calm. If Japan allows private vehicles to enter the airport on September 5, the airport would be very chaotic and no one would be about to get out. It would effect the evacuation work. That’s why Japan had forbidden vehicles to enter, all people in the airport had to take airport buses or turbo ship to leave the airport and go to Rinku (where there is tram service) or Osaka harbour.

But Hsieh's explanation sparked angry comments and the demand for his resignation. Then came the news that his colleague Su Chii-cherng took his own life.

The incident begs series reflection on the collective psychological stress that stems from years of political tension between China and Taiwan that so easily stoked the spread of deadly misinformation.

 

The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit Befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

1 comment

  • Much respect for this report. Not only is it the most complete account I’ve seen, it is the only one to remind readers that “The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression”. Amidst the discussion of “fake news” and cross-strait tensions, no report mentions that his death came a mere 4 days after World Suicide Prevention Day – when Taiwan’s 2017 suicide stats were released, showing suicides in Taiwan have increased for the past 3 years, and remains the 11th leading cause of death. Framing this story as strictly one of politics, without acknowledging the issue of psychological health, risks normalizing suicide as an expected response to high job stress or dishonor – just when the public needs to be reminded that suicide is preventable, and not viewed as a solution to life’s struggles.

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