Lessons from the “Nikkei” Taiwan Debacle: A Call for Informed, Conscientious Reporting


Japan’s top financial daily ignited a firestorm in Taiwan with an article that cast doubt on the loyalty of the country’s military officers. An expert in Taiwanese politics critiques the story and the deeper journalistic failings it exemplifies.

Earlier this year, the Nikkei (Nihon Keizai Shimbun), Japan’s top financial daily, ignited a firestorm in Taiwan with an article (the first in a four-part series titled “Taiwan’s Unknown Face”) that called into question the loyalty of senior Taiwanese military officers.(*1) Such was the intensity of the backlash that the newspaper responded on March 7 with a notice saying, “We regret any confusion we caused. We will continue to strive for fairness in our reporting.” In the following, I take a closer look at the article as an example of problems endemic in Japanese coverage of Taiwan.

Biases in Japan’s Taiwan Coverage

As someone who spent many years researching politics in Taiwan, I feel that the Nikkei series typifies three bad habits common among Japan’s Taiwan watchers. The first is a tendency to draw sweeping generalizations about Taiwan from the opinions of a few select individuals. The second is the habit of viewing Taiwan’s issues through the polarizing lens of “waishengren versus benshengren” identity politics, pitting so-called mainlanders, who came to Taiwan during the years of 1945-49, against those who lived in Taiwan before that period. And the third is a tendency to look down on Taiwan as something that can come to no good in the long run.

“I still love China” blares the headline of part one of “Taiwan, Shirarezaru Sugao” in the February 28, 2023, issue of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
“I still love China” blares the headline of part one of “Taiwan, Shirarezaru Sugao” in the February 28, 2023, issue of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun.

In the piece, an anonymous source “connected with the Taiwanese military” asserts that “about 90% of our officers go to China after they retire,” that such veterans “provide military information in exchange for money,” and that “corruption has become the norm.” He questions how the Taiwanese army could possibly fight back against China in the event of an attack, given the large number of commissioned officers with roots in mainland China. Citing a nameless “expert,” the article concludes that “President Tsai Ing-wen has failed to establish control over the military” despite her much-publicized reforms.

Reading the piece as a whole, it is easy to come away with the message that the waishengren who dominate the senior ranks of the ROC armed forces are naturally predisposed to collaborate with and spy for Beijing. That impression is amplified by a conspicuous pull quote from the spurned veteran: “I still love China.”

Consequences of Sloppy Journalism

Word of the Nikkei story quickly reached Taiwan, where it elicited outraged protests from the Ministry of National Defense, the Veterans Affairs Council, and others. The newspaper was accused of impugning Taiwan’s military by baselessly alleging that 90% of its officers were spying for China.

The idea of presenting readers with a more complex, multifaceted picture of Taiwan is a commendable one. The foreign media have a tendency to portray Taiwanese society as monolithically anti-Chinese, largely overlooking its pro-Chinese and centrist elements. Nor should we minimize China’s ongoing efforts to penetrate the military and other sectors. Infiltration of the ROC army by the Communist Party goes back to the Chinese Civil War. It is vitally important to consider how effectively Taiwan’s armed forces would respond in the event of an attack by China, and I cannot fault the Nikkei for probing potential problems. However, by uncritically publishing one anonymous source’s unsupported “90%” assertion, the newspaper undermined the validity of that line of inquiry while sparking an uproar.

In my own experience gathering information in Taiwan, I have found that interviewees often exaggerate numbers to make a point. It is the reporter’s job to get at the truth by digging more deeply. If 90% of the ROC armed forces’ retired commissioned officers were really spying for China, Taiwan would have long since ceased to exist as an autonomous state. If it were true that President Tsai had “failed to establish control over the military,” she could not have stood up to Xi Jinping as she has over the past seven years. A moment’s thought should have sufficed to discredit such claims.

Even so, poorly informed Japanese readers may well have accepted those assertions at face value. Some may even have concluded from the piece that Taiwan is not a country worthy of Japan’s backing. In this sense, the story meshes perfectly with Beijing’s relentless campaign of propaganda and disinformation. But because it was published by the Nikkei, readers believe it much more readily than they would if they thought it originated in China.

Fact and Fiction

What, then, are the facts?

The truth is that a number of high-ranking Taiwanese officers have been arrested for passing military information to China. Some of these were “mainlanders,” but others were not. It is also true that many retired military officers travel to China, where they maintain business and other relationships. However, there is a big difference between maintaining relationships and engaging in espionage (passing on sensitive information).

I visited Taiwan this past April and discussed the article and the issues it raises with people in the military, academic, and journalism sectors. They were all of the opinion that China has indeed planted spies in Taiwan’s armed forces. Quantifying that presence is difficult, of course, but the 90% figure was uniformly dismissed as over the top. One expert I interviewed suggested that 10% might be a more realistic estimate. The general feeling was that the kind of pro-Chinese sentiment evident among some members of the army’s retired echelon was not a cause for worry, but that heightened vigilance was in order.

Be that as it may, Taiwan’s military establishment is extremely sensitive about the presence of Chinese agents in its ranks, especially when the subject is raised by Japan or the United States. A press report of the issue seems to touch a raw nerve as a matter of face. That is all the more reason for reporters to stay on solid ground with thorough, responsible journalism.

One encounters a wide spectrum of views in Taiwan, most of which have some basis in fact. When interviewing a subject, however trustworthy, a Japanese journalist must be conscious at all times of that individual’s position within the spectrum of public opinion. That means understanding the issues’ historical context. Without such background knowledge, reporting is inevitably shaped by personal preconception and could have the effect of propagating extreme views in Japan. Relying heavily on Taiwan’s “Japan hands” and others who speak Japanese can also yield a distorted picture. Reporters should conduct an objective review of the information they have gathered, referring to academic research as needed.

Myths and Stereotypes

Some Japanese observers are excessively fond of framing Taiwan’s issues in terms of a deep divide between pro-China waishengren and anti-China benshengren. Such antagonism certainly dominated Taiwanese politics in the 1990s, erupting during the 1994 election for mayor of Taipei, for example.

But three decades later, Taiwan has changed. The democratic reforms of the 1990s, initially focused on free and fair elections, have expanded with an emphasis on minority rights. Taiwanese society has moved toward a multiculturalism that advocates harmony and inclusion amid ethnic diversity.

Today, the vast majority of so-called waishengren are one or two generations removed from mainland China. Those who were over the age of 16 when they migrated to Taiwan between 1945 and 1949 would be at least 90 today. That first generation has long since ceased to play a leading role in Taiwanese society. The second generation was born and educated in Taiwan and experienced the transition to democracy as a formative influence.

It is hard to generalize about the national identity of second-generation waishengren. While some of them still think of China as their spiritual home, others have rejected reunification, having experienced firsthand the stark differences between Taiwan and China when visiting relatives or ancestral graves. Third-generation waishengren are even more ideologically diverse; some even took part in the Sunflower Student Movement of 2014, which opposed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement on the grounds that it would promote integration with China and undermine Taiwan’s autonomy. Conversely, a considerable number of young benshengren are drawn to China for economic or other reasons. In short, the dichotomy between “mainlanders and islanders” is no longer a helpful framework for understanding Taiwanese society.

Polling data does support the general observation that people in younger age groups are less inclined to favor reunification and more apt to identify as Taiwanese, and this generalization applies to the military as well. Enlisted soldiers are mostly under 40 and grew up amid the liberal values of Taiwanese democracy. While Taiwan’s military must be on guard against Chinese infiltration and influence at every level, it is difficult to imagine that clandestine operations directed by Beijing could succeed in fomenting rebellion among the ranks.

I do not mean to suggest that ethnic and national origins are irrelevant in today’s Taiwan. There are still those who habitually view the world in terms of waishengren versus benshengren. Remnants of the old hierarchy persist in various sectors of Taiwanese society, including the military. But those who wish to heal this rift once and for all occupy the majority. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that some Taiwanese are privately offended by foreigners who play up the waishengren-benshengren divide in an attempt to appear knowledgeable.

An Intellectual Anti-Taiwan Bias

The Nikkei’s four-part series purported to unveil Taiwan’s “unknown face,” but it seems to me that the articles’ orientation reflects an underlying conviction that Taiwan is a lost cause, headed inexorably toward extinction.

This perspective is not uncommon in Japan. Ever since the 1950s, Japanese intellectuals and journalists have been repeating the credo that Taiwan’s eventual reunification with China is a historical inevitability. Underlying this conviction, I believe, is a deep-seated contempt for the Taiwanese that finds favor with a certain type of Japanese reader. It is another trap that journalists need to avoid.

The tendency to portray Taiwan as doomed to failure grew more pronounced as China’s economy boomed in the 1980s, fueled by Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “reform and opening up.” With all eyes on China’s rapid rise, noted Japanese commentators and scholars doubled down on the idea that reunification was just a matter of time, and the public seemed to accept this view uncritically. More recently, as concerns about China’s ambitions have intensified, public opinion has shifted sharply in favor of Taiwan. But a considerable number of intellectuals and journalists continue to look on Taiwan as a hopeless case.

In Taiwan, you can always find material to back up your pet theory, and there are plenty of people who will tell you what you want to hear. It is easy enough to gather testimony to support the “lost cause” view of Taiwan. Scrupulous reporting is needed to reveal the complexities beneath the surface.

Some of the blame lies with the Japanese reading public, too. Whether the topic is Taiwanese society or Taiwan-China relations, many readers prefer coverage that explains things in simple, confrontational terms. It makes them feel they have a handle on the situation. Simplistic, superficial perceptions spread quickly.

Taiwan is much in the spotlight these days, as concern mounts over the possibility of a China’s attack. At such a time, there is nothing to be gained from the proliferation of uninformed views. The Japanese media have a vital role to play in this context. Journalists as well as academics must do their utmost to provide the public with an accurate, nuanced picture grounded in Taiwan’s complex history.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: President Tsai Ing-wen visiting a unit of army engineers at a military base in Chiayi, Taiwan, March 25, 2023. ©AFP/ Jiji.)

(*1) ^ “Taiwan, Shirarezaru Sugao 1,” Nihon Keizai Shimbun, February 28, 2023.

Media reporting Taiwan