The Great Power That Can’t Help Itself

The 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
J. Michael Cole

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.

17 Responses to “The Great Power That Can’t Help Itself”

January 17, 2016 at 9:27 am, Beatrice Chang said:

Great Observation! I am the version got enraged and decided to vote.


January 17, 2016 at 9:46 am, Shirley Hsieh-Lin said:

As a Taiwanese, I feel really bad for this video, and I believe it made more young people decided to vote. I’m glad the result shows, but I also wish this young girl did not involve it. She should not fear just because her homeland and nationality.


January 17, 2016 at 11:08 am, Bobby said:

Well, to say “I’m Taiwanese” is not a political statement, nor is I’m “Shanghainese” or “Beijinese” or Cantonese or Tibetan. In case of the Taiwanese, they are inevitably Chinese in culture with some differences in lifestyle… and in the political system, but not much difference really. While the folks in TW may have elected a new leader, this process of democracy may likely not make any drastic change to the status quo and issues within the economy; take the USA for example, pretty much status quo with severe police brutality, gun violence, and still mired in war and terror brought upon us by the regime actually in power, the US Congress (and their boss Pm Netanyahu) whom did give Mr. Obama “face” in implementing the controversial PPACA… and they’re trying, but thankfully failing atm to stop the lifting of sanctions against Iran. But we’ll see what the next elected scapegoat President can ‘possibly’ do for really changing a regressing America,.


January 18, 2016 at 12:18 am, Duncan said:

Good write up overall. However, your statement that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Emphasized the ROC is a sovereign and independent country” is an exaggeration. The article linked includes no such overt claim. While many of us may hold this to be true, and the actions taken may indicate as much, if MOFA made such an explicit statement, that in itself would be a much bigger news story than this one. Not to nitpick, but the discourse on one country vs. two countries is quite nuanced, and if MOFA had indeed done what you assert they did, there would potentially be retaliatory action taken by the PRC, which even the newly elected president is seeking to avoid.


January 18, 2016 at 11:13 am, channamasala said:

If you think that the Taiwanese are “inevitably Chinese in culture…with not much difference” to the Chinese, you have clearly not spent much time in Taiwan, Bobby. And if you have, you haven’t really looked at what is going on there.

Saying “I’m Taiwanese” is a political statement, because the Taiwanese are quite different culturally from Chinese, and unlike Beijingers or Shanghainese, they don’t *want* to be a part of China, now or ever. (“I’m Tibetan” can also be a political statement, depending on how and when it is said – Tibet may be a part of China now but they don’t want to be).

And this is unlikely to change. I don’t ever envision a future in which Taiwanese see themselves as Chinese in anything more than ethnicity.


January 19, 2016 at 1:58 pm, Bobby said:

You are quite confused about culture and ethnicity; Taiwanese folks are inevitably Sino-folk for one glaringly unmistakable reason: MANDARIN, albeit with a peculiar accent best exemplified by the champion of Taiwan-independence (and Sino-inferiority complex), your ex-elected leader Mr. Lee Deng-hui. The Fantizi (Traditional Kanji characters) are arguably MORE CHINESE than the modernized Jiantizi (Simplified Kanji of th Mainland), Sino-folk religions, shamanic geomancy of the Tao, and the Pure-Land Buddhism all Chinese cultural constructs, culinary traditions and arts, the age old Confucianist respect for elders, etc, etc… there is NO DENYING, except with the conviction of ignorance and fervent nationalism. As for ethnicity, you are mistaken; I’ve spent two years living in Taiwan during my middle school years (at the Hsinchu Science and Industrial Park School), learned bo-po-mo-fo and Chinese language (Mandarin), was shocked by the Taiwanese “Xiangrou” (dog meat shoppes), sang patriotic KMT songs “to eradicate the commies”… let me tell you, many Taiwanese folks I’ve met there and here in the US may call themselves “Han Chinese” or “Taiwanese” in “ethnicity” (certainly their nationality), but also know their ancestry with one or more of the many ethnicities that make up Chinese demographics around the world: Hakka, Manchu, Mongol, Miao, Dai, Uighur, Yi, Zhuang, etc. The “Han Chinese” identity is more of a cultural and national identifier, MUCH LIKE “AMERICAN”… you have people of European, African, Asian, Middle East, etc backgrounds here where I live who simply call themselves “American”, rather than “German”, “Italian”, “Filipino”, “Jordanian” and what not. I’ve friends who are Mongolians and Manchurian from China; when asked about their nationality, they fact plainly and factually identify themselves as Chinese… NO INFERIORITY COMPLEX or nationalism; when asked about their ethnicity, they’ll tell you “Mongol” or “Manchu”… still no inferiority complex or nationalism. Tibetans in China are proud of their culture and heritage much thanks to China’s governance including affirmative action rules that apply to all ethnic minorities, including non-compliance to the One-Child Policy, higher-education benefits not applied to “Han” group, autonomous and tribal policing and laws that often are much less stringent than China’s “federal” laws, etc. In fact, Tibetan people of China have among THE BEST PRESERVED ancient culture, ethnic identity, a very fast growing population that expanded from a declining 1 million back in the 1950s under the Dalai Lama theocratic regime, to the 3.1 million you see to day; 90% whom are ethnic Tibetans in the Tibet region, and 85% of them are TIBETAN BUDDHISTS… unlike Native Americans whom have their culture pretty much ERADICATED, Native American languages suffering the worst levels of language death in the world, practically ALL OF THEM are converted to Christianity… which unfortunately helps them support terrible religious and political sectarianism and violence we see between the Western powers and Islam.

You can call yourself Taiwanese, even as a citizen of the “nation of Taiwan”… after all… we are all small “powers that can’t help itself”…


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