by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: CNA
ANGER HAS ensued from members of Taiwanese civil society following attacks on demonstrators protesting the Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival on National Taiwan University campus yesterday afternoon. Namely, attempts to protest the event inside and outside the venue led to the early cancellation of the event despite a original planned end time of 10 PM, followed by demonstrators taking to the stage in order to demonstrate the absurdity of an event held on National Taiwan University being conducted as though Taiwan were a part of China. Demonstrators were later attacked by members of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party and Concentric Patriotism Alliance, leading to four students being injured
Sing! China, the rebranding of the earlier The Voice of China singing competition, is a well-known Chinese reality television show. What is notable about Sing! China and its predecessor The Voice of China, however, is that the show goes out of its way to feature contestants drawn from “greater China,” including Taiwan and Hong Kong. This is also true of the television show’s judging panel, in which two of the six judges, Jay Chou and Harlem Yu, are Taiwanese. Judge Eason Chan, likewise, hails from Hong Kong, meaning that three out of the show’s six judges are not actually from the China mainland. The notion of “greater China” emphasized in the show goes to great odds to show that its contestants are drawn from all across “greater China”, with contestants oftentimes stating which province they are at the beginning of their self-introduction, and with their home province listed in their profile. Obviously, “Taiwan” is always a “province” of China on Sing! China. Indeed, The Voice of China had previously featured an indigenous Paiwan singer from Pingtung County being made to refer to herself as hailing from the “Pingtung area of Chinese Taipei” (中國台北屏東區).
In particular, Sing! China has a large audience in Taiwan, in part because of its featuring of contestants from all across “greater China” inclusive of Taiwan. But as a result, in social discourse, Sing! China is commonly used as an example of how China is larger and greater than Taiwan, seeing as China has so many talented contestants but Taiwan has fewer contestants who may not seem as talented compared to their more numerous Chinese counterparts. As such, it may not be too surprising to see why Sing! China would provoke the ire of Taiwanese young people such as yesterday’s demonstrators, who increasingly identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Likewise, given the popularity of Sing! China in Taiwan, it would not be too surprising if China attempts to use Sing! China as part of its soft power initiatives in Taiwan to try and convince Taiwanese that Taiwan must become part of China if it is to maintain anything like international competitiveness, seeing as it already seems to be lagging behind China in such matters as the performance ability of its entertainers. Indeed, official comments by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office have in the past referred to the the Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival being held in Taiwan, alongside other cross-strait issues such as the Lee Ming-Che incident or classical Chinese controversy, suggesting that China’s Taiwan Affairs Office was aware of the event from the beginning and had some hand in it, even if that may have been minor.
Nevertheless, apart from the need to register dissent, what provoked such ire yesterday from members of pro-Taiwan civil society is twofold. First, demonstrators were angry that Taipei city officials, including Mayor Ko Wen-je, would allow an event so undignifying to Taiwan and denigrating of Taiwan’s status as a de facto nation-state to take place in National Taiwan University. National Taiwan University could not even be referred to by its proper name within the program instead being referred to as “Taipei City Taiwan University” because the “National” aspect of “National Taiwan University” suggests that Taiwan is a country independent of China.
Secondly, demonstrators were upset by the lack of transparency by the National Taiwan University administration, with many students only discovering that National Taiwan University had agreed to hold such an event on its campus when students discovered the stage for the event set up on the National Taiwan University athletic field, and official notice of the event occurring only shortly before the event was supposed to take place, denying student groups use of the athletic field. It is somewhat of a mystery as to why the event was held on National Taiwan University’s campus, seeing as National Taiwan University has long been a hotspot of pro-Taiwan student activism, although the event not being announced beforehand may have been in an effort to prevent word of the event from breaking out.
However, the protest saw violence against students from members of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party and the Concentric Patriotic Association, pro-unification groups with a history of political violence against pro-independence demonstrators, members of the Falun Gong, and others. Likewise, the Chinese Unification Promotion Party is pro-unification political party led by former gangster turned pro-China politician “White Wolf” Chang An-Lo, a killer of political dissidents under the KMT.
Four students were sent to the hospital yesterday after being attacked by a 61-year-old man named Hu Dagang, a member of the Chinese Unification Promotion Party. Chang An-Lo’s second son, Chang Wei, was also seen physically threatening students, having previously been in the news recently for leading attacks on Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong at Taoyuan International Airport when Wong visited Taiwan for a conference.
As a result, protests ultimately drew members of civil society ranging from Fan Yun and Miao Poya of the Social Democratic Party, Tsay Ting-Kuei of the Free Taiwan Party, activist celebrities as Indie DaDee, and the event prompted condemnations from members of the New Power Party. Much anger is directed towards Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je, seeing as the event was stemmed from Ko’s initiative to conduct city-based exchanges between Taipei and Shanghai and so funding came from the Taipei City Department of Cultural Affairs.
In order to conduct such exchanges, Ko had proven willing to make public statements which were viewed as debasing Taiwan’s independent status from Taiwan, such as claiming that Taiwan and China shared a common destiny and were family between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. The Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade, an event strongly pushed for by Ko, had previously also been an event in which Taiwan was required to compete as “Chinese Taipei”, this despite the event taking place within Taiwan. So, too, for the Sing! China competition. Seeing as Taiwan flags were confiscated at the Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade, individuals carrying Taiwan iconography were also restricted from entering the venue for the Sing! China competition, leading to outrage over what was seen as a restriction on freedom of expression by police.
With recent discussion of Ko possibly harboring presidential ambitions, no doubt this event will be brought up as a black mark on his record, as well as a cited as an example of how Ko could possibly prove a president deteriorating of political freedoms in Taiwan. Indeed, Ko was put into power as an independent mayoral candidate with the backing of Taiwanese civil society, but Ko seeming to be a candidate “beyond blue and green” political divisions was originally understood to mean that Ko was pro-Taiwan but not beholden to the DPP. In the two years since Ko took office, Ko is now increasingly perceived as somewhere between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camp, as also evidenced in Ko’s apparent admiration for Chiang Ching-Kuo, reluctance to part with Chiang Kai-Shek iconography in Taiwan, and close relation with James Soong of the People First Party, an official political advisor of Ko’s that he meets with monthly for political advice.
Nevertheless, it will be seen how galvanizing the event proves exactly for pro-Taiwan civil society. If Ko Wen-Je has received much of the blame for the event’s outcome, it will be a question for the DPP as how to position themselves relevant to this controversy when it is a increasingly a question as to how the DPP relates to independent political forces such as Ko Wen-Je or the NPP.
And it remains to be seen how pro-Taiwan civil society intends to leverage on outrage following the event. Some will certainly attempt to blame pro-Taiwan civil society groups for disrupting the event to begin with, never mind that this did not compare to the violence with which pro-unification groups attacked protesters. Yet outrage following the Sing! China controversy can perhaps also prove galvanizing for the Tsai administration regarding its current passivity on taking steps to permanently secure Taiwan’s status independent of China, including not pushing particularly hard on the matter of UN exclusion for Taiwan. We shall see, then.