Battles of the Keyboard

Chi Zhang_Taiwan.jpgBy Zheyan Ni

ZHEYAN NI discusses how online battles between Mainland and Taiwanese netizens reflect the growing rift in cross-strait mutual understanding.

During the past year, Mainland Chinese netizens have been active in boycotting Taiwanese celebrities who cling to their Taiwanese identity as a standalone political or cultural symbol. Both the Chinese government and the general public have exerted pressure over social media on Asian celebrities in the Chinese market. Taiwanese celebrities’ careers became vulnerable to the scrutiny of thousands of patriotic Mainlanders ready to attack perceived disloyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. Several Taiwanese celebrities have been forced to cancel shows or to make public apologies as a result of behaviors misperceived as characterizing the Republic of China as a separate political entity from the People’s Republic of China.

   One hotly debated case this year involves Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese singer. She was widely criticized and insulted by Mainland netizens simply because she held the Republic of China flag on a Korean TV show. This action was interpreted as a sign of pro-Taiwanese independence and was quickly reported by a Taiwanese leftist activist, Huang An, on Weibo.

   Chinese TV stations doing business with Chou’s South Korean brokerage firm, JYP, felt pressured and demanded an explanation for her behavior. JYP kept silent. Chinese TV stations then asked for business severance, which JYP again refused. The Chinese smartphone and telecom giant Huawei then cut all its ties with JYP, whose stock value soon plummeted.

   Repercussions of Chou’s incident extended beyond business matters. On social media, Mainland Chinese felt offended because they interpreted Chou’s act as advocating Taiwan’s independence, while Chou was crassly making money from the Mainland audience at the same time. Many netizens told her to “get out!”

   On January 15, having endured too much pressure from both JYP and the general public, Chou made an absolute video apology. Reading from a piece of paper with her voice trembling, Chou stated that Taiwan and the Mainland were “one unit” and that she always took pride in her identity as a “Chinese.” However, the connotation of “Chinese” is ambiguous. “Chinese” (zhongguo ren) could easily be interpreted as ethnically or culturally Chinese instead of politically Mainland Chinese. She emphasized that she felt “deeply ashamed for her past behavior that hurt the feelings of people on the Mainland.”

   On the other side of the strait, the Taiwanese public was angered by the cyberbullying of Chou. Many believed that the apology was made under duress. Since Chou’s public announcement was made right before the Taiwanese presidential election, a survey found that the video might have affected the decision of about 1.34 million young voters, either by swaying them to vote or changing their votes. Scholars estimate that the incident probably contributed one or two percentage points to President Tsai Ing-wen’s winning margin, a president perceived as more pro-independence than her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.

   Chou’s predicament is not an isolated case. This July, Taiwanese actor Leon Dai became embroiled in a similar controversy. The Communist Youth League, a training ground for elite positions within the Chinese Communist Party, waged a coordinated social media campaign on Weibo against Dai’s casting in an upcoming Chinese romance No Other Love. The Youth League accused Dai of being a supporter of Taiwanese independence and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement — political issues of particular consternation for the Chinese Communist Party. Mainland netizens posted over  300,000 comments about the incident on Weibo, with most echoing the Youth League’s accusations.

   Later, both Dai and members of the film’s production crew made public statements denying that the actor had any political agenda or sympathy for Taiwanese independence. Unlike Chou, Dai was backed by a well-known mainland based film crew and a connected, public relations-savvy Chinese director, Zhao Wei. Dai’s team was believed to have pressured Weibo to remove this incident from the most searched hashtag list, trying to clear “rumors” of his political stance, instead of issuing a public apology.

   After Dai’s incident, Taiwanese netizens launched a satirical “Apologize to China Contest” on Facebook and gathered thousands of posts from Taiwan, Hong Kong and even Japan–all targets of Chinese patriotic ire. The posts facetiously apologized for enjoying cleaner air, safer food products and more political freedom than Mainlanders. The impact of this campaign reverberated on Mainland social media sites. While some empathized with the campaign’s intentions of revealing fundamental value differences among Mainlanders, Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, many mocked the participants for their arrogance towards the Mainland. Different experiences in the past seven decades are difficult to unite in one grand narrative.

   While mainland Chinese often stigmatize pro-independence attitudes, the current social media-savvy generation in Taiwan tends to take it as a given reality. One student from National Cheng Kung University claims that the school’s literature department has seen growing interest in Taiwanese indigenous literature and declining interest in Chinese literature. Jian Xiaoyou, a PhD candidate studying cross-strait relations at National Sun Yet-sen University of Taiwan, opined that “For most younger generations in Taiwan, Taiwan is Taiwan, not Chinese Taiwan, not Taiwan province; there is nothing to be independent of.”

   The Internet, often perceived as a platform for bringing about consensus and understanding, may instead become a proxy battleground for the two sides. More challenges in cross-strait relations will emerge, and the online chaos around Chou Tzu-yu may be just a beginning.

Zheyan is a graduate student in History at the University of Chicago. Contact her at zni@uchicago.edu.

Illustration // Christina Chi Zhang

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