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:
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:
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:
[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:
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:
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.