Written by Chieh-Ting Yeh.
Image credit: Xinzhu 新竹 by Prince Roy/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.
“Wave Makers” (2023; 人選之人-造浪者) is a new drama on Netflix about political staffers trying to win a presidential election in the last few months of the campaign. This may sound like the premise of many television shows in the political intrigue genre, but it is the first of its kind from Taiwan to be available to a worldwide audience.
The story follows Wen-fang Weng (starring Ying-Hsuan Hsieh), a senior staffer working in public relations for the opposition party. She is known within her party as the LGBTQ candidate who lost a city council election in her conservative hometown. Her boss Chia-ching Chen (starring Jag Huang), a long-time political operative, struggles to balance being a parent while campaigning in the age of instant news and social media.
The presidential election itself features the incumbent President Sun (starring Hsueh-Feng Lu), who vows to limit immigration and carries through death penalty executions, running against Chairwoman Lin (starring Pei-Hsia Lai) of the Justice Party, who happily makes Instagram videos of Indonesian immigrant neighbourhoods but deftly avoids answering any pointed questions.
The drama addresses various political issues relevant to contemporary Taiwan, including environmental concerns, energy policies, and workplace sexual harassment, reflecting the ongoing public debates on these topics.
But it is glaring in what it is missing: Taiwan-China relations.
The elephant in the room.
It is a very surreptitious time for a drama about Taiwanese politics to be available to the American audience. Nevertheless, Taiwan has recently been making waves in the US foreign policy consciousness. While China has always made the Taiwan Strait a “flashpoint” by threatening the use of force to annex Taiwan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year and the subsequent meeting of House Speakers Nancy Pelosi and then Kevin McCarthy with (real-life) Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has pushed Taiwan to the forefront of conversations in government offices and newsrooms in Washington DC.
If the Taiwan-China conflict is a hot topic for the US, it is an existential question for Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China harbours ambitions to annex Taiwan, peacefully if it could, with lethal military force if it must. Taiwan faces a policy choice regarding China: either to appease China by making concessions on its sovereignty or to seek assistance from the US in deterring China’s advances. The two major parties, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), each represent one of the two policy choices for Taiwanese voters.
Therefore, Taiwan’s presidential election is dominated by the question of Taiwan’s China and US policies. It crowds out all other domestic political issues; it is the elephant in the room.
A political drama from Taiwan, then, would have been the perfectly timed opportunity for the American audience to better understand how the Taiwanese public experience this elephant in the room, for American viewers to better relate to the perspectives towards the Taiwan-China and US-China standoffs and perhaps make better judgment or policy decisions regarding this issue. But foreign viewers who wanted just that will be disappointed. For experts in the field of US-China and US-Taiwan relations, this show will be a letdown.
Of course, there are reasons for this that are, in and of themselves, political. But, sadly, the level of sensitivity and controversy around the Taiwan-China issue is still not viable for a commercial project. Anecdotally, the decision to avoid talking about China was deliberate to convince Netflix to carry the show without incurring wrath from the Chinese market (the show has been banned in China anyway).
But in another sense, while the world that “Wave Makers” created is inaccurate, it may actually be what the Taiwanese people prefer their politics to look like. In “Wave Makers”, policy towards a foreign country is not an existential issue and does not overshadow all the other important issues from the public square. Rival politicians can debate immigration and environmental policies, fend off student protesters, and even dig up each others’ scandals without worrying about what anyone in Beijing or Washington says. Having an election where no matter who wins, a woman with gravitas will become president is not bad.
Yes, from the perspective of American audiences and US policymakers, the tension with China is the sole pertinent issue regarding Taiwan. Understandably, international media focus on this aspect of Taiwan to the point where everything about Taiwan happens “amid tensions.” This creates an illusion for foreign audiences that Taiwan is constantly in a state of panic and that war is the only thing on people’s minds. “Wave Makers” is a perfectly timed portal for viewers to see that the illusion is far from the truth.
There are other issues the Taiwanese public cares about that are just as important to the people’s daily lives. Taiwan does not want to be “amid tensions” all the time. Without those tensions, Taiwan looks like any other country with all the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes from any democratic political system—more than enough from which to create an entertaining television series.
“Wave Makers” is a wonderfully accurate depiction of the life of a political staffer in Taiwan. They must make hard choices like: do I sacrifice my family duties to serve the country? Do I press my idealism or compromise for the greater good? Do I hide what I think to win an election because only power can change the world?
These are the same hard choices facing anyone working in politics in democratic countries. Taiwan is no different. While “Wave Makers” does not directly speak to the existential controversy in Taiwan—the China issue—it does say something about it by its silence.
“Wave Makers” reminds the world that Taiwan is not just a “self-governing island,” it shows us what kind of self-governing people in Taiwan are actually doing: it is a fully functional democratic state with many, many hard-working individuals making personal sacrifices every day to make sure it continues to exist, to serve, and to protect its people.
Chieh-Ting Yeh is a venture investor in Silicon Valley and a director of US Taiwan Watch, an international think tank focusing on US-Taiwan relations. In addition, he is a co-founder and the editor of Ketagalan Media and an advisor for the Global Taiwan Institute and National Taiwan Normal University’s International Taiwan Studies Center.
If you are interested in the author’s work, please also read Graduation Trip: From Bland Bureaucrat to Madame Liberty.