The White House's map showing Taiwan and China as separate countries rattled some nerves from behind China's Great Firewall

The Asahi Shimbun via Getty ImagesNational Security Advisor John Bolton attends a briefing at the White House, on August 2, 2018 in Washington, DC. The administration’s top security officials briefed the media on election interference.
  • A White House map that showed Taiwan as a separate country from China is likely to draw as sharp a rebuke from mainland social media hawks even as it excited pro-independence supporters in Taipei.
  • At a White House press conference on Monday dealing with the current crisis in Venezuela, viewers in Asia quickly homed in on a background map that highlighted China but displayed Taiwan as a separate country.
  • China claims Taiwan as its own, while Taiwan views itself as independent from the mainland. China has exerted considerable effort to enforce its view in this matter.

At a White House press conference this week dealing with the current crisis in Venezuela, attention in Asia quickly turned to a background map highlighting China – absent Taiwan – in red. This is not a map that actually exists, according to the Chinese Communist Party and its critically important origin story.

As the US National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin held a press briefing outlining economic sanctions to force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to step down, attention from either side of the Taiwan Strait moved to the map in the background.

A press conference about South America, turning heads in Asia

Bolton mnuchin(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 28: Director of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin confer during a press briefing at the White House January 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. During the briefing, economic sanctions against Venezuela’s state owned oil company were announced in an effort to force Venezuelan President Maduro to step down.

On the White House map, China and Taiwan are clearly displayed with different colours, which to some, implied that the two countries are separate. China claims Taiwan as its own, while Taiwan views itself as independent from the mainland. China has exerted considerable effort to enforce its view in this matter.

According to the South China Morning Post, Taiwanese and mainland internet users took a few rhetorical jabs at the map.

Is that another country, Mr. Secretary?

John bolton steve mnuchin venezuela china map maduroMANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty ImagesNational Security Advisor John Bolton speaks as US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin looks on during a briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC on January 28, 2019.

“Taiwan was painted white next to China, which was painted red. Obviously, the US government believes that the two sides belong to two countries,” the Hong Kong tabloid The Daily noted (link in mandarin).

Beijing claims a number of contested territories, but is particularly sensitive about Taiwan, a self-ruled island that it considers to be a province of China. The Communist Party has used fines, public shaming, and the introduction of social credit scores for corporations to force foreign companies to adopt its political rhetoric.

Beijing’s increasingly public obsession with cartography is emerging in increasingly strange quarters – from the redrawing of supposedly errant maps in classrooms, on travel websites, and in academic journals worldwide. From the South China Sea to Sikkim, the Middle Kingdom has been demanding more retractions and stronger apologies from anyone touting maps that do not fit with the Communist Party’s view of its territory.

In Beijing’s view, Taiwan has long been considered as a rogue province that must eventually be “reunited” with the mainland.

However, as James Miles, China editor for The Economist says on the Little Red Podcast, Taiwan has never actually been a part of China. The entire idea of “reunification,” is a pretty good example of Chinese Communist Party propaganda on the issue, one that is intensely sensitive on the mainland, where the issue is constantly massaged and the slightest cartographic slip-up can trigger immense outrage.

It is an issue from which the CCP cannot waver. The Party derives much of its legitimacy from a historical narrative that has the Communists largely defeating Japanese invaders single-handedly, as the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan.

Since the election of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, relations have fallen into a now-familiar cycle of defiance-threat-outrage.

How we got here

Taiwan China(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)KINMEN COUNTY, TAIWAN – APRIL 20: Aged anti-landing barricades are positioned on a beach facing China on the Taiwanese island of Little Kinmen which, at points lies only a few miles from China, on April 20, 2018 in Kinmen, Taiwan.

Beijing has been increasing pressure on universities, nations and most vehemently on multinational corporations with China-based business to scrub out any hints of Taiwanese independence, a move the White House has described as “Orwellian.”

China recently carried out live-fire military drills in the Taiwan Strait involving its Liaoning aircraft carrier, an exercise interpreted as a show of force. The naval exercise was the first in the Taiwan Strait since 2016 and was held just off the coast of Taiwan.

China’s President Xi Jinping, often stamps China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, warning at the 19th Party Congress, “we have sufficient abilities to thwart any form of Taiwan independence attempts.”

Beijing has also imposed financial restrictions by significantly limiting the number of Chinese tour groups allowed to visit Taiwan, and imposed trade sanctions on the island.

As the South China Morning Post reports, it was only a few weeks ago that McDonald’s was forced into an apology following intense criticism for a TV commercial that incidentally featured a student ID card that listed Taiwan as a country.

Last year, United Airlines had to quickly remove all its references to Taiwan as a country after China’s civil aviation authority demanded that 36 foreign airlines nix Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as countries on their websites and marketing materials.

Business Insider’s complete list of chastened companies – from Audi to Zara to Marriott hotels – that have fallen afoul of China’s approach to mapping, can be found here.

The SCMP reports that on Taiwan’s major internet bulletin board system (link in mandarin) the map had attracted many hundreds of comments by Wednesday afternoon, with many users poking fun at China’s recent hardline approach to Taipei.

“Are the Chinese internet users going to boycott the White House?” one user wrote, according to the SCMP.

“Will they force the White House to apologise?”

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