Written by Jian Xu.
On January 25, 2017, National Defense News, a military newspaper under the management of the Military Committee of the Communist Party of China, published a commentary titled, ‘Never allow artists to eat Chinese food and smash Chinese bowls.’ The article criticised pro-independence Hong Kong singer Hins Cheung and applauded his ban from appearing on one of China’s most popular reality shows, I Am a Singer, run by Hunan Satellite TV. It argues that ‘in front of the overall interests of the country and nation, every artist needs to stay rational within the bottom line. Overstepping the bottom line means no future. Any ‘idol’ will be discarded if they hurt the national emotion and dignity of the Chinese people.’ Though the commentary didn’t name and shame any pro-independence Taiwanese star, the ‘every artist’ in the commentary undoubtedly includes Taiwanese stars who’d like to pursue their careers in mainland China. For them, the bottom line is ‘one China’ and ‘peaceful unification.’
Since the 21st century, with the decline of Taiwan’s local entertainment industry, more and more Taiwanese stars have shifted their career focus from Taiwan to mainland China which has a lubricative entertainment industry and a much larger audience base. Whether in films, TV dramas, variety shows, or TV galas broadcast in China, it is hard to find any without Taiwanese stars involved. To survive in the competitive market, Taiwanese stars must obey mainland China’s laws and rules and hold a correct political stance regarding the Taiwan issue. Transgressors will be punished, boycotted or banned. In August 2014, Taiwanese actor Ko Chen-tung was arrested by mainland police for his drug use in Beijing and was cut from blockbuster and further banned by the government as a ‘tainted artist.’ Early in 2000, Taiwanese pop music diva Chang Hui-mei (A-Mei) had been boycotted by patriotic mainland fans and some TV and radio stations due to her singing of Taiwan’s national anthem at Chen Shui-bian’s inauguration in 2000.
The trend of boycotting ‘pro-independence’ and ‘anti-unification’ Taiwanese stars has become more prominent since 2016 due to the rise of ‘Little Pink’ cyber-nationalism in China as well as the frosty cross-strait relations under President Tsai Ing-wen. Taiwanese celebrities who usually work across the strait in the seemingly apolitical entertainment industry have become a forefront of political friction on both sides, causing unprecedented politicisation of celebrities in cross-strait relations. In mainland China, pro-independence Taiwanese celebrities are trolled and boycotted by the nationalist netizens and further lose their working opportunities. In the meantime, pro-unification Taiwanese celebrities who openly express their patriotic stance are highly supported by fans and are rewarded with opportunities to perform on the national stage. In Taiwan, the pro-unification celebrities endorsed by the Chinese government are criticised by the Mainland Affairs Council and Ministry of Culture of Taiwan as a pawn of Beijing’s propaganda and ‘United Front’ work and are boycotted by many pro-independence Taiwan people and media. The ban of pro-independence Taiwanese celebrities is also used as a convenient fact to criticise China’s freedom of speech, question China’s sincerity in promoting cross-strait cultural exchange, and more importantly, to mobile the anti-Beijing public sentiments in the island.
One of the most pertinent cases is the incident of Chou Tzuyu, a Taiwanese singer and dancer in the Korean girl group TWICE. She was exposed by pro-China Taiwanese singer Huang An on his Weibo in early January 2016 as a ‘pro-independence’ artist because she showed the flag of the Republic of China in a variety show in South Korea. This soon provoked an online outcry against her pro-independence behaviour and led to the cancellation of the scheduled performance of TWICE in China. Under the pressure of online public sentiments, JYP Entertainment, Chou’s talent agency, soon posted online an apology video from Chou. She apologised profusely, saying she always considers herself a Chinese person and feels profoundly sorry and guilty for her inappropriate words and actions. People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, commented on Chou’s apology on its official Weibo on the same day, endorsing ‘nation first and idol last’, a popular slogan used by nationalist fans to boycott pro-independence celebrities from Hong Kong and Taiwan. On the other side of the strait, Chou’s apology video was also read politically by the Taiwan public and politicians during the 2016 Taiwan election. The video, apparently, made many Taiwanese people feel humiliated and angry and helped Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party win the election. Tsai referred to the incident in her victory speech, saying it serves as a ‘constant reminder’ to herself and Taiwan people about ‘the importance of our country’s strength and unity to those outside our borders.’
The antagonism between these two sides politicises not only the pro-independence Taiwanese celebrities but high-profile pro-unification celebrities. Ouyang Nana and Angela Chang are two examples. Their Chinese fans highly praise them because of their firmly expressed patriotic stance. They frequently post patriotic Weibo messages to support China at important moments, such as National Day, Army Day, National Memorial Day, disasters, and controversial issues. They are called ‘role model’ artists from which other Taiwanese and Hong Kong celebrities are expected to learn. Ouyang Nana’s famous patriotic ‘three-piece suit’ (Weibo, Facebook, and Instagram) has become a standard for the nationalist netizens to judge if a Taiwanese or Hong Kong celebrity is consistently patriotic or just a ‘double-faced’ person. These people support unification on Weibo but oppose it on Western social media platforms. These are blocked in mainland China but accessible in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Praising Nana consistently posts patriotic messages on all three platforms, vigilant netizens troll these ‘double-faced’ Taiwanese stars. They are irked by their tendency to post pro-independence messages on Facebook and Instagram but say something different on Weibo and call on people to boycott them, such as Dee Hsue (Little S), who called Taiwanese athletes’ national players’. ‘Role model’ stars, such as Ouyang Nana and Angela Chang, have also been rewarded with very competitive opportunities to perform on highly important national celebratory galas. These are galas such as the National Day Gala, Spring Festival Gala, Mid-Autumn Festival Gala, run by China Central Television. When Ouyang Nana, a Taiwanese star of the post-00s generation, co-sung the patriotic song ‘My Motherland’ with stars from Macau, Hong Kong, and mainland China on the 2020 National Day Gala, her symbolism as Taiwan’s young generation – a generation eager to return to the embrace of the motherland – could not be more apparent.
On the other side of the strait, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council warned that the performance of Ouyang Nana and Angela Chang on the National Day Gala could violate a cross-strait law that protects Taiwan’s national identity and may result in fines of up to $500,000 New Taiwan dollars. However, Ouyang Nana and Angela Chang defied the fine risk and performed at the 2020 National Day Gala. However, the threats from Taiwan authorities and backlash from Taiwanese fans, compared with their positive reputation, huge fan base and enormous market in mainland China, could certainly be ignored.
In the cross-strait turbulence, Taiwanese celebrities have been facing an unprecedented dilemma. They can only choose one side to stand on and can’t satisfy the governments and the public on both sides. When nationalist netizens in China trolled Taiwanese celebrities for not posting Weibo messages to celebrate National Day, Taiwan media published an article to criticise those who posted such messages on Weibo on China’s National Day but were silent on Taiwan’s Double Tenth Day. The dividing of Taiwan celebrities into ‘pro-independence’ and ‘pro-unification’ camps on both sides have made Taiwanese stars become very powerless elites. The ‘star war’ across the strait has demonstrated the ‘star vulnerability’ of Taiwanese celebrities who are greatly indentured by the ever-changing cross-strait relations. Cultural exchange is believed to be crucial in building positive cross-strait relations. The issue of how celebrities could help promote cultural exchange as ‘cultural ambassadors’ rather than become a frequent target of political controversies must be carefully considered by both sides of the strait in future cross-strait communications.
Jian Xu is a Senior Lecturer in Communication at Deakin University, Australia. He researches Chinese digital media and celebrity studies.