The Great Power That Can’t Help ItselfThe public humiliation of a young Taiwanese entertainer in South Korea has sparked outrage among the Taiwanese, who retaliated with an even more powerful weapon — their votes
Chou Tzu-yu (周子瑜) isn’t her usual bubbly self in the short video, which has spread like brushfire in social media over the past 24 hours. The Taiwan-born 16-year-old member of the South Korean pop band TWICE has been forced to apologize, on film, for holding a Nationalist flag (symbol for the Republic of China) during a recent filming, and, reading from a script, to “admit” that she is Chinese rather than Taiwanese. Visibly shaken, the young woman doesn’t exactly radiate pride in her avowed Chineseness. In fact, it is clear that the confession, which has drawn many comparisons to videos produced by the Islamic State, was made under duress and under threat by her South Korean agent and Chinese sponsors that her career as an entertainer would be jeopardized should she refuse to humiliate herself on camera.
What is most shocking about the incident (besides the idea that Chinese zealots would force a 16-year-old to go through this) is its timing. As the confession was beginning to spread on the Internet (more than 2.5 million views on YouTube since Jan. 15), millions of Taiwanese were readying to vote for their future president and parliament in the sixth free general election since their country democratized after decades of authoritarian rule. By depicting Chou as a “Taiwanese splittist” for displaying the ROC flag, those responsible for this incident confirmed once again why the majority of Taiwanese want nothing to do with becoming part of the People’s Republic of China.
With their act, the geniuses at Huawei, the Chinese cellphone maker that, after Chou’s “crime” was exposed and sparked “outrage” in hypersensitive China, pressured South Korea’s LG Uplus to cease all cooperation with Chou, have succeeded in offending not only Taiwanese patriots but also many supporters of the Beijing-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) who take great pride in the ROC. Chou has endorsed Huawei’s Y6 cellphone in the South Korean market. LG Uplus has signed a partnership with Huawei for its LTE network equipment.
Unsurprisingly, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT and James Soong (宋楚瑜), who is running for the presidency as head of the People First Party, have both condemned the attack against Chou and maintain that she has nothing to apologize for. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also stepped in on Saturday, saying there was nothing wrong with the young woman displaying the flag of her country. Meanwhile, the response among supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who is widely expected to be elected on Saturday, has been scathing and voluminous.
“This is the final straw. [The] KMT is done tomorrow as this video gets posted all over FB,” one Netizen wrote. “Communist China pig pressured, and directing the fucking dirty China pig 黃安, a poor, jobless, brainless, out-of-dated middle-aged singer did it,” wrote another, referring to Taiwanese singer Huang An, a pro-Beijing entertainer who has made it his “duty” to tip-off the Chinese government about the activities of Taiwanese entertainers and who is believed to have exposed Chou’s “transgression.” Indicatively, the Taiwan-born Huang, who reportedly became a Chinese citizen in 2001, is said to have called upon the pro-unification “ex” gangster Chang An-le (張安樂), a.k.a. White Wolf, to provide him personal protection when he returns to Taiwan during Lunar New Year.
The incident has also competed with, and at times overtaken, reporting on Taiwan’s elections on all major TV channels since Jan. 15.
Once again the bluntness of China’s nationalism has prompted experts to ask who was behind the decision to take such action and, in this particular case, at such a critical time in cross-strait relations. Was it directed by Beijing as part of its strategy to sideline Taiwan, or was it simply the initiative of an overzealous Chinese who, though well intentioned (from the perspective of Chinese nationalism), perhaps did not fully comprehend the consequences of his action?
While it is unlikely that senior Chinese Communist Party officials are behind most of those decisions, they are not entirely blame-free either, as it was the CCP that after all created the monster of strident nationalism that characterizes much of Chinese behavior at home and abroad, even among young Chinese who are receiving a liberal-democratic education in the West (for more on the mechanisms by which the CCP leadership has shaped and exploited nationalism among Chinese from a very early age, I strongly recommend Zheng Wang’s Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations). Thus, when an ultranationalist feels compelled to put a blameless 16-year-old through a traumatizing struggle session and to threaten her career as an entertainer, the CCP lies not far behind as the mastermind of a nationalism that is becoming increasingly self-defeating and, for the international community, undoubtedly worrying. Although the timing of the Chou case could not have been worse, the attack is not an isolated incident and is very much part of a trend that never ended, not even during the nearly eight years of rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing.
Needless to say, Chou’s management agency, JYP Entertainment Corp, also deserves opprobrium for giving in to Chinese extraterritoriality and subjecting one of its stars to such treatment.
Although the Chou affair is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the elections in Taiwan, many observers have reported being told by Taiwanese that the incident had emboldened them to vote, even if they have to travel to do so. If ever there was a sign of maturity among the Taiwanese, this is it: After the initial flash of anger, they responded to an affront by peacefully casting a vote. In the end, Taiwan wins.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.