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Viral Taiwanese Air Force Patches Are a Punch to the Face to Xi Jinping

Anna Matthei

Image Source: NY Post

In recent weeks, a patch showing the seemingly innocent Pooh bear being punched by a Formosan Black Bear has taken the media by storm. The designer of the patch, Alec Hsu, saw a spike in the sale of these patches after MNA Taiwan (Taiwan’s military news agency) released a photo of a Taiwanese pilot wearing it on his sleeve. This post was in light of recent events, most likely in response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States to meet U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy despite threats from the Chinese government. In a period of urgency for the Taiwanese military, this patch does not only serve as a symbol of Taiwan's resistance against China's growing influence, but by its showcasing in public or on social media, it can help to spread awareness of Taiwan’s national security, potentially attracting talented individuals to protect democracy.

Taiwanese Air Force and Air Defense

Now that President Tsai is back, China has started military drills around Taiwan, marking the first time Chinese J-15s have crossed into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Chinese news broadcasts claim that this is a continuation of their Operation Joint Sword military drills, stating: “Forces in the command are ready for combat at all times, and will resolutely destroy any type of ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist or foreign interference attempts.” The ‘separatist forces’ that support Taiwanese independence, in this case, would simply be President Tsai and anyone in Taiwan who does not subscribe to the One China policy. According to a Washington Post analysis of Defense Ministry data, “People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planes flew into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone at least 1,732 times last year.” These are the “gray zone tactics” China is deliberately using to intimidate and exhaust Taiwanese pilots. Moreso, these constant affronts consume valuable time, preventing senior pilots from training the new recruits that will one day take their place.

About five years ago, Taiwanese fighter pilot Lt. Col. Hsiao Yi-chiao was ordered to intercept an incoming Chinese military aircraft, a PLA J-16 fighter jet. After reaching the air within minutes of the notification, the fighter jet slowed and started a beeline towards him. Fortunately, no collision occurred between the two aircrafts, and the Chinese operator steered past him, fleeing back to its airbase. Hsiao is one of Taiwan’s few linchpin fighter pilots, a group that is both gradually shrinking in size and rising in commodity. The Taiwanese military has struggled to meet its recruitment targets for years, and has recently increased its mandatory military service from four months to one year in an attempt to keep up with China’s threats and military development. On top of this, it can take up to half a decade to become a fully combat-ready F-16 fighter pilot. Since China has increased their airborne threats, fighter pilots like Hsiao have had it the hardest, often scrambling to reach the sky and finding themselves in risky dogfights with aggressive Chinese pilots. Lockheed Martin is sending F-16s to Taiwan, which will eventually carry 200 of the fourth-generation fighter jets in its fleet. The struggle now is to find enough people to fly these planes.

Recently leaked classified documents from a suspected 21-year-old Jack Teixeira in the Massachusetts Air National Guard suggest China’s Air Force might have a much better shot at establishing early control of the skies if conflict were to escalate across the strait. This is mainly due to “PLA’s modernization, its heightened operations tempo, and the use of civilian ferries in exercises in the Eastern Theater Command near Taiwan,” reducing the U.S. Intelligence Community’s capability to identify unusual or questionable activity from China. In addition, another assessment from the documents show that Taiwan’s military and civilian preparedness, when it comes to air defense, is largely inadequate for any real-world events due to the highly scripted nature of their missile warning drills. Though the documents show a rather bleak assessment of Taiwan’s military readiness for a PLA air attack, not all hope is lost. In November, Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that “[China] hasn't fought in combat since fighting the Vietnamese in 1979, they would be playing… a very, very dangerous game to cross the straits and invade the island of Taiwan.” Those such as Alec Hsu, designer of the viral patch, feel a similar optimistic point of view. These patches can boost the morale of the Taiwanese people, reigniting the nation’s flame of hope.

Patch Symbolism Breakdown

Uniform patches are commonplace across militaries around the world. They are an eye-catching and symbolic way of representing a unit’s history and cause. In September 2020, U.S. airmen made patches that also denounced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, they were banned by the Air Force under the pretext that no patches should show “any visual representation, symbols or language derogatory to any race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, age or disability status.” Though these viral patches seen on the Taiwanese fighter pilot uniform are not part of the official military uniform, the Taiwanese Air Force is open-minded to anything that will boost morale.

To un-code the symbols on the patch, let’s begin with the Formosan Black Bear. The creature is an endangered species endemic to Taiwan, and is often seen as its national emblem. In fact, the Taiwanese Tourism Bureau created an official Oh! Bear mascot for Taiwan. Here you can see Oh! Bear’s file.

T he bear has also been made into a plush by the movement Keep Taiwan Free, which is “raising awareness about Taiwan's exclusion from the international community, and safeguarding human rights & democracy against the CCP's aggression.” The US ambassador to the United Nations has been seen photographed with this plush in her purse, and the plush bear has been both mentioned and tweeted by President Tsai.

On the red variation of the patch, the phrase “we are open 24/7” is plastered across the upper right corner. This refers to the Swiss Air Force, which only operates during its designated “office hours.” They are held from 8:00 am until noon, then 1:30 to 5:00 pm, and are closed on weekends. However, much like the phrase “Scramble!” suggests, Taiwanese pilots are on constant alert due to the increase of Chinese military aircraft activity in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Unlike the Swiss, the limited number of pilots in Taiwan must stay alert, 24/7.

Finally, the well-known reference to Xi Jinping, Winnie the Pooh. Ever since the 2013 meme of Obama and Xi Jinping shown as Tigger and Pooh, China has banned digital images of Winnie the Pooh as part of the censorship wall. This is because the CCP views the meme as “a serious effort to undermine the dignity of the presidential office and Xi himself.” Seen as a symbol of dissent, media like Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey had been banned, which is now the second Winnie-the-Pooh-themed movie to be banned in China. Even if these movies have, at most, little to do with Chinese politics, the mere image of the crop-top-wearing bear is simply too intimidating for Xi.

Movements like Keep Taiwan Free and the Sunflower Movement, as well as the sale of these patches, are important reminders that Taiwan is continuously fighting for its democracy. Taiwan is proud to showcase its Formosan black bear, which on the patch, is diligently fighting back Winnie the Pooh in its “Fight for Freedom.”

Security and the Future

U.S. experts estimate that Taiwan will be safe until at least 2027, the 100th anniversary of the PLA. Another crucial year is the 2024 Taiwanese presidential election, where Xi Jinping hopes that the China-friendly party, Kuomintang, will win the presidency. However, if the current Vice President and member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te wins the presidency, the country could be at risk since Lai and the DPP are both very vocal about their pro-independence stance.

The U.S. Intelligence Community views Taiwan as a crucial ally in the Indo-Pacific region, demonstrating a strong commitment to Taiwan's security through various military and diplomatic initiatives, including arms sales, joint military exercises, and high-level diplomatic visits. Taiwanese pilots must make use of every resource and hope that allies such as patch designer Alec Hsu will continue to support the Taiwanese air force by spreading awareness and igniting hope across the nation. Although their safeties balance on a knife's edge each time they scramble to the skies, brave Taiwanese pilots will continue to do their best at any given moment to protect their country, and to protect democracy.


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