Taiwanese are rushing to buy patches being worn by their air force pilots that depict a Formosan black bear punching Winnie the Pooh – representing China’s leader Xi Jinping – as a defiant symbol of the island’s resistance to Chinese military exercises.
China began three days of military drills around Taiwan on Saturday, a day after the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, returned from a brief visit to the United States, where she met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy despite Beijing’s warnings.
Chinese censors have long targeted representations of Winnie the Pooh – created by British author A.A. Milne – over internet memes that compare the fictional bear to China’s leader.
Alec Hsu, who designed the patch, has been selling it at his shop since last year, but he saw a spike in orders after Taiwan’s military news agency on Saturday published a photo of the patch on the arm of a pilot inspecting a fighter jet.
“I wanted to boost the morale of our troops through designing this patch,” said Hsu, who owns Wings Fan Goods Shop.
Hsu said he has ordered more patches to meet the increased demand. Customers have included military officers and civilians.
The patch shows an angry Formosan black bear holding Taiwan’s flag and punching Winnie the Pooh, with the slogan “Scramble!” – referring to what the island’s pilots have had to do with increased frequency over the past three years as China sends more aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone – a self-declared buffer that extends beyond the island’s airspace.
The endangered Formosan black bear is seen as a symbol of Taiwanese identity. Taiwan was previously better known internationally as Formosa.
“Where can we get a patch like that! Guaranteed to be best sellers!” Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the United States wrote in a tweet on Monday.
Taiwan’s air force told Reuters that while it does not “particularly encourage” its members to wear the patch, which is not a part of their uniform, it “will maintain an open attitude” to anything that raises morale.
China’s Communist Party claims democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory despite never having controlled it and has not ruled out taking the island by force. Tsai’s government rejects China’s sovereignty claims, saying only Taiwan’s people can decide their future.
While the Winnie the Pooh patch cannot be found on Chinese social media, Beijing has also been promoting videos and commentary about its drills around Taiwan.
The People’s Liberation Army Eastern Theatre Command, the Chinese unit that would be at the frontline of any military action against Taiwan, released a video on Monday showing scenes from the drill, set against upbeat music.
The video targeted a Taiwanese audience by using traditional Chinese characters, which are still used in Taiwan but no longer in mainland China.
Chinese military drills
China’s drills focused on practicing “maritime blockades” and “targeted ambush assaults on enemy mooring vessels” in the Taiwan Strait, as well as northwest, southwest and waters east of Taiwan, Chinese state media reported reported.
Over the weekend, multiple PLA services had carried out “simulated joint precision strikes on key targets on Taiwan Island” and in the surrounding waters, state media reported.
Analyst Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, said the PLA was “practicing and probably refining the aerial coordination and joint operations required to initiate a blockade of Taiwan’s ports and air lanes.”
A Chinese blockade of Taiwan could choke off supplies coming into the island, including any military aid or other shipments from the United States or its partners.
The US, through the Taiwan Relations Act, is legally obligated to provide Taiwan with defensive weaponry, but it remains deliberately vague on whether it would defend Taiwan in the event of an attempted Chinese attack.
Beijing had repeatedly warned against Tsai’s meeting with McCarthy and threatened to take “strong and resolute measures” if it went ahead.
After the drills commenced, Beijing described them as “a serious warning against the Taiwan separatist forces’ collusion with external forces, and a necessary move to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Taiwan Defense Ministry spokesperson Sun Li-fang said the PLA’s exercises had “destabilized” the region.
“President Tsai’s visit became their excuse to conduct exercises and their actions have severely jeopardized the security of the surrounding region,” he said, adding that the island’s air defense units were on “high alert.”
Beijing conducted similar large-scale military exercises around Taiwan last August, after then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island.
CNN’s Brad Lendon contributed to this story