Why has Taiwan become a Brazilian far-right symbol?

. May 29, 2020
Why has Taiwan become a Brazilian far-right symbol? Tsai Ing-wen supporters celebrate her electoral win, in January 2020. Photo: O.O/Shutterstock

Jair Bolsonaro and his acolytes have a history of sparring with China. Setting himself apart from all predecessors — including the generals who ruled the country during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship — the current Brazilian president has treated Chinese investments as a threat to national security and economic sovereignty. In his first year in office, Mr. Bolsonaro adopted a pragmatic approach toward Beijing, but the coronavirus pandemic has erased all of this tentative rapprochement. Now, the Brazilian far-right is doubling down on its Sinophobic discourse, a process which has led to an odd show of solidarity with the island state of Taiwan — a hot-button issue for the Chinese government.

</p> <p>In recent weeks, as an attempt to goad China, President Bolsonaro&#8217;s online following has begun celebrating Taiwan and its defiance of Beijing. Many prominent pro-Bolsonaro Twitter accounts have even added Taiwanese flags to their screen names, displaying them alongside the flags of Brazil, the U.S., and often Israel — all three being common sights at public rallies in support of the far-right president.</p> <p>On Wednesday, hours after being targeted by a <a href="">Federal Police operation</a>, prominent Bolsonaro-supporting blogger Allan dos Santos and Congresswoman Bia Kicis appeared in a live broadcast alongside Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro&nbsp;— the president&#8217;s second-eldest son. On a monitor in the background, a large Taiwanese flag was projected, with the words &#8220;Viva Taiwan.&#8221;</p> <p>Almost a full week after Tsai Ing-wen was sworn in for her second term as Taiwanese president, the pro-Bolsonaro social media army decided to congratulate her. Mr. Santos <a href="">asked</a> his 341,000 followers to list which members of Congress had followed suit, suggesting that those who didn&#8217;t were &#8220;obeying the Chinese Communist Party.&#8221; That Twitter storm took Taiwan to the top the world&#8217;s trending topics, and even led Ms. Tsai to thank her &#8220;Brazilian friends for their kind congratulations.&#8221;</p> <blockquote class="twitter-tweet tw-align-center"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Thank you to all of our friends in <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Brazil</a> for your kind congratulations, and I hope you are all staying safe &amp; healthy. <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#VivaTaiwan</a> 🇹🇼 <a href=";ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#VivaBrazil</a> 🇧🇷</p>— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) <a href="">May 26, 2020</a></blockquote> <script async="" src="" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Jair Bolsonaro and Taiwan</h2> <p>Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China since 1949, when nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after losing the Chinese Civil war to Mao Zedong&#8217;s communists. Beijing&#8217;s &#8220;<a href="">One-China policy</a>,&#8221; however, treats Taiwan as part of its territory — and President Xi Jinping said last year the island &#8220;must and will be&#8221; reunited with China. In a January 2019 speech, he said that his government <a href="">reserved the right to use force</a>.</p> <p>Ever since establishing diplomatic relations with the People&#8217;s Republic of China in 1974, Brazil has never recognized Taiwan as a sovereign state. Jair Bolsonaro, however, has shown signs that this stance could change. Julia Dalbosco, an international relations expert at the Federal University for Latin American Integration, says that, “for the Brazilian far-right, Taiwan has become a sort of anticommunist token.”</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro has always defended <a href="">automatic alignment</a> with the U.S., even as a candidate. In 2018, during the presidential campaign, he visited the island while calling Chinese investors&#8217; interests for Brazilian land a &#8220;risk&#8221; for <a href="">Brazil&#8217;s food security in the future</a>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Last year, sworn in as president, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s Foreign Affairs Ministry <a href="">prioritized Taiwan</a> over China and India in the queue for access to Brazil&#8217;s electronic visas&nbsp;— a quicker procedure that aimed at increasing the inflow of tourists to the country.</p> <p>Indeed, Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s Brazil and Tsai Ing-wen&#8217;s Taiwan are strange bedfellows. Ms. Tsai&#8217;s Democratic Progressive Party is a distinctively center-left platform, part of Taiwan&#8217;s Pan-Green Coalition which champions left-liberalism, human rights, and gender equality — causes diametrically opposed to those of the Bolsonaro government. &#8220;Pro-Bolsonaro supporters would be surprised if they knew how much more progressive Taiwanese people are,&#8221; says Ms. Dalbosco.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-1078940"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Brazil playing with fire</h2> <p>But the latest act of provocation might be the most &#8220;in-your-face&#8221; move by the Bolsonaro camp so far. Late in April, Congressman Loester Trutis — a supporter of the president — presented a bill that would <a href="">recognize Taiwan as an independent nation</a>. &#8220;Even without diplomatic relations with Brazil, the Taiwanese welcome that advance,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>The bill motivated the Chinese Embassy to address a <a href="">letter</a> to Brazil&#8217;s Congress, urging lawmakers <em>not</em> to vote on any bill concerning Taiwanese independence. &#8220;The Chinese side appreciates the fact that the House of Representatives has respected the &#8216;One-China&#8217; principle. [&#8230;] It would remain thankful if the House were to take necessary measures to make its members aware of how sensitive the Taiwan issue is, to avoid gestures or attitudes that may harm the &#8216;One-China&#8217; principle,&#8221; wrote the embassy.</p> <p>Indeed, the Brazilian government&#8217;s antagonism toward China is a purely ideological venture. From the point of view of trade and the economy, <a href="">a good relationship with Beijing is an absolute necessity for Brazil</a>. Rhetoric aside, China is by some distance Brazil&#8217;s biggest trading partner, which could be threatened should Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s ideological zealots continue their crusade.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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