China's social media users were threatening war over Nancy Pelosi. Now they're talking about sand

Business Insider US
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference at Union Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17, 2022 in Washington, DC.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference at Union Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 17, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
  • Chinese social media was flooded with war fervor ahead of Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan.
  • Social media users made threats against Pelosi and predicted a swift takeover of the island.
  • With the chances of a conflict diminishing, they're now rallying behind a sand export ban.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider.

As rumors of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan began to build earlier this week, Chinese social media users spouted threats of retribution and all-out war.

However, the tamer reality of Beijing's response has given way to a shift in rhetoric on Weibo — China's heavily-moderated version of Twitter — where nationalistic users have now rallied behind their country's ban on sand exports to Taiwan.

On Tuesday, Weibo's most well-liked posts and comments spoke openly of shooting down Pelosi's plane and "smashing all incoming enemies."

After Pelosi's aircraft departed Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for Taiwan on Tuesday, Weibo users began anticipating the US and Taiwan initiating a provocation that would lead to a swift retaliation by China. "Tomorrow's hot search: Taiwanese people line up for Chinese IDs," one popular comment said.

In a post that received over 100,000 likes, another user wrote that they looked forward to seeing the Weibo hashtags "reunification of China," the "death of Pelosi," and "the liberation of Taiwan" trending the next day.

The talk of hostilities coincided with reports that the US was moving warships and F-35 fighters near the Taiwan Strait. Meanwhile, the Chinese army's Eastern Theater Command posted a montage of its air force, navy, and ground forces striking unspecified targets.

However, speculations about a war failed to materialize as Pelosi arrived at Taipei's Songshan Airport on Tuesday evening. Instead, China announced a series of live-fire drills around Taiwan and a ban on food imports from the island.

Talk of sand goes viral

On Wednesday, the war fervor on the site appeared to dissipate overnight, with death threats against Pelosi nowhere to be seen on top trending pages.

While it's difficult to discern how closely Weibo traffic represents its user base — the platform is subject to intensive censorship from Chinese authorities — it appears that support for China's countermeasures has surged on the site.

"The People's Liberation Army did not do anything yesterday. I think it was the wisdom of a great country. Because the ultimate goal of solving the Taiwan issue is to unify Taiwan. Instead of shooting down Pelosi's plane," a post with 60,000 likes said.

Instead of war, Weibo users' attention has become fixed on natural sand exports to Taiwan, which Beijing vowed on Wednesday to stop.

Often used to create concrete and asphalt, natural sand is also an essential material in semiconductor manufacturing — an industry that Taiwan dominates. 

The announcement was a small part of a wider array of sanctions against Taiwan, but that hasn't stopped the topic from surging to more than 1.2 billion views in six hours, per Weibo's site statistics seen by Insider.

Weibo users have hyped up the idea that the sand ban is the first of a series of crippling blows to Taiwan.

"Step by step, believe in the motherland," said a popular comment.

"The first wave of action has begun, the banning of sand exports to Taiwan is already a clear signal. Next, there will be a series of 'combo punches,'" another user wrote.

The hashtag: "What is natural sand?" began to trend on Wednesday morning, with explainers receiving a total of 220 million views.

Beijing previously stopped exporting natural sand to Taiwan in 2007 over what it said were environmental concerns. However, it resumed exports the following year. At the time, 90% of Taiwan's sand came from mainland China, Reuters reported, citing Chinese official data. 

Dozens of popular Weibo posts have also cited the 2007 report as evidence that Taiwan's construction industry would come to a standstill.

However, Taipei has since sought to diversify its sources of natural sand and said in 2019 that it was also boosting local production.

Taiwan's Mining Bureau said on Wednesday that, this year, only 7% of its natural sand imports came from China and that this week's ban would have a "limited impact" on its economy.

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