What Authoritarian Regimes Don’t Want You to See

Depending on where you were on Saturday night, you may have missed some of the highlights from the Golden Melody Awards
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
J. Michael Cole
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If you were among the many people who tuned in to Taiwan’s 26th Golden Melody Awards (金曲獎) on Saturday night, there is a chance that you didn’t get to see the full show — at least if you were watching from Singapore or China.

Organized by the Ministry of Culture, the annual event, which was first held in 1990, is Taiwan’s own Grammy Awards, with prizes for best songs and artists performing in the variety of languages spoken in the country.

As often happens at such galas, the more civic-conscious winning artists will use the few minutes they have at their disposal to say a few things about politics and other issues — gay and human rights, war, and other matters of public interest.

Of course, in an open society like Taiwan, artists enjoy the freedom to say what they think, and they often do; in fact, in recent years local artists have become more vocal and willing to lend their names to a variety of causes. Whether the audiences agree with their political views is for them to decide. That, in a nutshell, is the essence of a free society.

Sadly, governments in other countries are not as generous with the information that they allow their citizens to access, either because the authorities think they know what is best for their citizen-subjects, or because they fear that the population might get infected with dangerous ideas if they are exposed to them.

The governments in Singapore and China didn’t take any chances last night: their censor-minions were hard at work making sure that the Golden Melody Awards, which were broadcast simultaneously in those two countries, didn’t carry any “unsafe” messages. Thanks to the magic of the 30-second delay — which Beijing surely would have invented hadn’t other people done so already — information-control artists can block a feed before the undesired information penetrates the eyes and ears of their viewers.

Photo: Ping Chu

And that’s exactly what happened last night. So when singer Huang Wei-chieh (黃瑋傑), who was nominated in the best Hakka album category, and others appeared on the red carpet flashing large “Today Dapu, Tomorrow the Government” (今天拆大埔,明天拆政府) flags, which in 2013 became a symbol of civil resistance to forced evictions in Dapu, Miaoli County, viewers in Singapore were treated to a black screen with the message, “This segment of the programme is not suitable for broadcast. We apologise for the inconvenience caused.” Of course, Singaporean authorities felt no such remorse over the inconvenience caused to Amos Yee (余澎杉), the 16-year-old Singaporean man who will be locked up in a psychiatric ward for daring to criticize the late Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), the former leader and high priest of the so-called “Asian values” and their purported incompatibility with democracy.

Photo: Jacky Yang

It was even worse if you were watching in China, where coverage was immediately blocked when the winner in the “song of the year” category was announced. For obvious reasons, Fire EX’s (滅火器) “Island’s Sunrise” (島嶼天光) — a song that became the anthem for last year’s Sunflower Movement, which successfully prevented the government from implementing a highly controversial services trade agreement with China — was unpalatable to the Chinese authorities. Unless the Chinese were able to bypass the Great Firewall of China, they could only conclude that this year, there was no “song of the year” in Taiwan.

Less nefarious, but still troubling, is the fact that while viewers on Taiwan Television (TTV, 台視), the official broadcaster of the event, saw the whole thing live, uninterrupted and uncensored, most news broadcasts on other Taiwanese channels later on did not report on Fire EX’s win. All of them instead focused on the awards bagged by Jolin Tsai (蔡依林), A-mei (張惠妹) and Hong Kong’s Eason Chan (陳奕迅). Focus Taiwan, state-run Central News Agency’s English-language service, ran a total of 10 articles on the event. None, however, headlines the winner in the “song of the year” category or Fire EX, which is only mentioned in the complete list of the night’s winners in an article titled “Jolin Tsai’s ‘Play’ biggest winner at Golden Melody Awards.” (To their credit, Focus Taiwan did run an article about Hong Kong singer Karen Mok [莫文蔚] expressing her support for last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that made gay marriage legal across the U.S.)

The take-away message from all this: Play it safe, write insipid songs (like in the good authoritarian days) about heartbreak and summer love, and the world — even its more authoritarian corners — is your oyster. Tackle political issues, however, and you’re likely to encounter barriers.

Congratulations to Fire EX for the much-deserved recognition!

 

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. He is the author of Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan published in March 2015.

3 Responses to “What Authoritarian Regimes Don’t Want You to See”

June 28, 2015 at 1:35 pm, Mike Fagan said:

“…because the authorities think they know what is best for their citizen-subjects, or because they fear that the population might get infected with dangerous ideas if they are exposed to them.”

A good point always worth making, but it was only ten days ago that you yourself were lamenting the ability of television political shows to put out material which you would rather the Taiwanese electorate didn’t see because you thought it better for them not to be exposed to it. You would be correct to claim that character assassination is one thing and expressions of popular discontent are quite another, but any attempt to censor either presupposes the same fallacious assumption that the authorities know what is best for “their” citizen-subjects.

Whatever claims they may make as to knowing what the “public interest” is or is not, political authorities always know what is in their own best interest.

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J. Michael Cole

June 28, 2015 at 1:51 pm, J. Michael Cole said:

No; the point that I made 10 days ago was that political talk shows were avoiding substance by spending days talking about trivialities — not that people should not be exposed to such trivialities.

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June 29, 2015 at 5:47 am, Corey Sanderson said:

I get your point about Fire EX’s neglect in the English-language Focus Taiwan, though I did find an article on CNA: http://www.cna.com.tw/news/firstnews/201506275021-1.aspx. Epoch Times and UDN also ran articles, as well as others. Now, that’s print media, and televised media has all but completely dismissed the win and focused on what you described. Less nefarious, indeed, but still uncomfortable.

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