by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: GaeC86/CC BY 4.0

TAIWANESE VOLLEYBALL PLAYER Elaine Liao recently became a hit in China, as Taiwan’s flag bearer during the opening ceremonies of the FISU World University Games. More than 600,000 Chinese netizens commented on a post on Sina Weibo about her, referring to her as a “cute flag bearer from Chinese Taipei.” The FISU World University Games are currently taking place in Chengdu, China.

Nevertheless, admiration for Liao quickly turned to anger after nationalistic Chinese netizens discovered an Instagram post from Liao in which she referred to her travels to China as “going abroad.” This subsequently led to outrage from Chinese netizens that framed her as an advocate of Taiwanese independence.

It is not unusual for Taiwanese to refer to traveling to China as traveling “abroad”, regardless of what their views on Taiwanese independence are. This more broadly reflects Taiwan’s de facto independence from China. After all, traveling to China requires passing through immigration and customs, while traveling domestically would not.

After the controversy, Liao stated that the reaction would not deter her from competing. Liao also stated that there seemed to have been a case of mistaken identity, where a comment was misattributed to her, with a photo that did not show her.

Nevertheless, this is not the first time Taiwanese have come under fire in connection to sports competitions from Chinese nationalists, due to perceived pro-independence stances–which are sometimes, in fact, mistaken.

Facebook post by Wang Chi-lin on his and Lee Yang’s victory

In August 2021, television host Dee Hsu, who is more widely known as Xiao S, came under fire from Chinese nationalists because of a Facebook post praising Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin, who beat China to win gold medal in men’s double’s badminton in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In particular, Hsu referred to Lee and Wang as “national champions”, prompting outrage from Chinese nationalists. This led several Chinese brands including drink brand Shouquanzhai, shampoo brand Clear, and fashion brand JORYA to pull sponsorships with Hsu.

Lee and Wang emphasized that they were from Taiwan after their win, something that might have contributed to outrage against Hsu, in that this was perhaps read as indicating support for Taiwanese independence. But ironically, Hsu was far from a supporter of Taiwanese independence. Hsu moved to Beijing in 2016 to host Chinese variety shows and she has been accused of pro-China views in the past. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hsu lashed out at the Tsai administration for restricting exports of medical masks to China, to ensure that Taiwan had adequate domestic supply. During this period, the KMT similarly sought to use this as a talking point with which to attack the Tsai administration.

Nevertheless, it is probably merely the fact of being Taiwanese that led to backlash against Hsu or, in this case, Liao. Chinese nationalists probably did not pay any attention to Hsu’s political views before lashing out at her. This has occurred in the past with other Taiwanese celebrities that likely have more pro-unification views, such as when Ouyang Nana, the daughter of KMT politician and actor Ouyang Long, was accused of being pro-independence due to some of the acting roles she took on.

Likewise, at times, Chinese nationalists lashed out at what they perceived as expressions of support for Taiwanese independence when this would hardly be perceived as such in Taiwan itself. The most high-profile case in point may be when K-pop girl group member Chou Tzuyu of TWICE was accused by Chinese nationalists of supporting Taiwanese independence because of waving the ROC flag in a promotional video. Waving the ROC flag would not be perceived as support for Taiwanese independence in Taiwan itself, but that this was read as such by Chinese nationalist netizens led Chou to issue a formal apology.

All this is not new from Chinese nationalists, then. Some have framed the backlash against Liao as a sign of how China would hardly leave Taiwan alone, if it acquiesced to its views, but how Taiwanese can be subject to arbitrary targeting from Chinese as a result of frail nationalist “glass hearts”.

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