As a US Air Force jet carrying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approached Taiwan on Tuesday night, expectations ran high in China over how Beijing would respond.
Since reports emerged that the key US lawmaker would visit Taiwan during an Asia tour, conversation in China had churned with nationalist furor and amped-up rhetoric on what the leadership could do about it.
Beijing had earlier threatened Washington that those who “play with fire” over Taiwan would “perish,” and warned the US against crossing a “red line,” saying the Chinese military would “not sit idly by” if Pelosi visited the self-governing island, which China’s Communist Party claims as its territory, despite never having controlled it.
Voices outside the government, including former Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, had been more direct, saying China could take military action against Pelosi’s plane — raising the public’s expectations of a showdown.
Instead, Pelosi and her congressional delegation landed on the tarmac in Taipei’s Songshan Airport, where they were greeted in a live-streamed welcome by Taiwanese officials, while the iconic Taipei 101 skyscraper flashed “US-Taiwan friendship forever” in brightly lit text and crowds, of both supporters and protesters, gathered outside Pelosi’s hotel to await her arrival.
As Taiwan rolled out the red carpet, China’s government ministries fired off a raft of condemnations, while its military pledged to launch extensive, multiday military exercises, and on Thursday fired missiles over the island — a first for China.
But China's initial actions stopped short of what was expected by some of its domestic audience.
And within China’s online sphere, where nationalistic voices dominate its highly censored social media, disappointment was high.
“I don’t know where to hang my head. This is so shameful. People outside the Great Firewall are laughing their heads off. (China’s) literally a ‘paper tiger,’” wrote one user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform. Others asked why there was so much hype for so little action.
But in the days since, a reckoning, and a reset, have been unfolding in China. In an attempt to reverse the dissatisfaction, state media have mobilized to drum up support for China’s response, portraying its military drills as strong and “unprecedented.” Social media platforms have been inundated with news of those exercises, and other voices in the public arena have lauded China for what they call a successful, strategic response and decried what they saw as warmongering.
Resetting the narrative
One target for this pushback has been Hu, the former editor of state-backed tabloid Global Times, seen as a key voice revving up nationalist sentiment in recent days.
On Thursday, the influential “Chairman Rabbit” account on messaging platform WeChat, run by blogger Ren Yi, said China’s actions had matched the tone conveyed by the government, but not the predictions of the former Global Times editor.
“The Chinese government has indeed formulated very strong and proud countermeasures, which have been very successful in handling this issue of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan,” said the post.
“As a result (of Hu’s remarks), on the evening of August 2, when the Chinese government and official media solemnly announced the military exercises and series of countermeasures against Taiwan, netizens did not cheer for these unprecedentedly powerful measures, nor did they feel the unprecedented high morale, great excitement from people’s hearts, or the boiling patriotic sentiment,” the post said.
Another popular online commentator, Geng Xiangshun, said the public’s patriotism was “very good,” but calls for war were unwise – though he did not mention Hu.
“You must know that the ultimate goal is to realize the reunification of the motherland at the minimum cost, not to start a war,” he wrote on his Weibo account.
Hu defended himself in a post on Thursday, saying his “heavy words” had value in influencing discussion around Pelosi’s visit, including in Washington, adding the “patriotic camp” should have “diverse” voices.
As these conversations played out, some social media users appeared to rethink their disappointment, with one writing Thursday evening that the decision makers were actually “wise” and “logical.”
“Now I understand,” one user said in a post with thousands of likes.
But the apparent need to ease disappointment and promote China’s response also highlights the risks leader Xi Jinping has taken in stoking nationalistic feelings.
“Nationalism has grown under Xi Jinping, because Xi continuously uses this for his purpose, to advance his agenda, but I don’t think he ever understood the negative side, because he thinks he can stir nationalism, but also stop it,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
However, on this occasion, Beijing appears to have brought the narrative back under control, while Hu has become a scapegoat for stirring up nationalist sentiment, Wu said.
“‘Wolf warriors’ sometimes need to pay the price,” Wu said, using a common term for Beijing’s combative, nationalist opinion leaders and diplomats.
Asked on Wednesday about the initial online backlash over China’s response, Assistant Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying gave a telling response.
“We have full confidence in the ability of our country and our government to firmly defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Hua said. “The Chinese people are rational patriots.”
CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.