Tzuyu’s apology, China-Taiwan-Korea relations and the force of Chinese nationalism

Wearing a plain black polo neck sans make-up looking exhausted and slightly terrified in a recording with the grainy bleakness of a hostage video, Tzuyu taught us all one thing: Chinese nationalism is scary.

Nationalism across North East Asia can be pretty frightening – usually being built on negative sentiment towards a neighbour whether that be anti-Chinese, pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan, anti-Korean, anti-Hallyu sentiment in Japan or historical anti-Japanese sentiment everywhere that isn’t Japan. Unhealed scars of colonialism, military defeats and economic competition (sometimes legitimately) affect citizens’ perception of their national identity across the region and periodically flare up diplomatic disputes between countries. But no other brand of nationalism in the region has the kind of all-encompassing narrative the Chinese Communist Party has been pushing for decades.

In Chinese schools, children are taught about “The Century of National Humiliation” – the hundred years from China’s secession of Hong Kong to British colonial powers in the 1840s to the Maoist revolution at the end of the 1940s. It’s the time period that saw thousands of years of China’s cultural, technological and intellectual domination of its neighbours come to an end with the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the final Chinese emperor and various invasions, massacres and occupations by foreign invaders including the truly horrific Nanjing massacre at the hands of Japanese Imperial forces which some say took hundreds of thousands of lives. (Side note: the first character of virtually all of China’s various names over the millennia, 中 (zhōng same as Korean 중), means “middle” which reflects its view of itself as the centre of civilisation.)

The concept of national humiliation was pushed particularly strongly in the early 90s after Tiananmen Square and during the time when China was opening itself up to the world as a way for the Communist Party to deflect from its own failings and vast corruption and try to prevent the spread of “un-Chinese” Western ideas like democracy and free market capitalism.

And it seems to have worked to some extent. Twenty-five years on, there have been no massive uprisings and the CCP remains firmly in government.

The thing about humiliation is that it is a particularly strong gut emotion that can induce instinctive defensive reactions from almost anyone. Humans are social beings and to be shown up in front of others is a particularly unpleasant experience and tends to revert . The raw energy of this breed of nationalism can be a powerful uniting force for an authoritarian government that no longer has a uniting ideology.

Taiwan plays a central role in China’s conception of this humiliation. They argue (although some dispute this) that the island was under Chinese rule since the 1600s before being conquered by Japanese imperialists in 1895. Ultimately it become the last retreat of the Kuomintang – the Chinese Nationalist Party who ruled the Republic of China for much first part of the 20th Century – after their defeat by the Chinese Communist Party who declared China the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

This is one of the main reasons this scandal is so ridiculous. The flag Tzuyu was shown waving is not a Taiwanese independence flag but the flag of the Republic of China. It represents the ideology of a political party which essentially wants to reunite with China just under a different name and political system. Not a flag vocal Taiwanese independence supporters are particularly keen on.

Tzuyu is clearly not a radical for Taiwanese independence but there are many people in Taiwan that are frustrated by China’s heavy-handedness when it comes to relations across the Taiwan Strait.

China not only refuses to recognise Taiwan as its own entity, it also refuses to let others recognise it if they want to have any kind of relationship with China under the One China policy. And with the world’s largest group of consumers, it invariably gets its way leaving an absurd situation where most people see Taiwan as an independent state but their governments’ refuse to call it one. This causes potential diplomatic slip ups all the time – see this recent press briefing with a US State Department spokesperson as an example.

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But it seems even this Chinese government, so keen to hit the diplomatic brakes on any official recognition of Taiwan, is back-tracking on its hard-line rhetoric towards Tzuyu. With the timing coinciding with the election of a new Taiwanese president from an independence leaning party (although she has emphasised keeping a constructive relationship with China), this scandal has also stirred a lot of strong feeling in Taiwan who, understandably, want Tzuyu to be able to assert her identity without fear of reprisal. Some believe it may have increased her party the Democratic Progressive Party’s lead by as much as 1% helping them get their first parliamentary majority ever.

Most likely seeing political instability it doesn’t need right in the midst of a massive economic slowdown, Chinese government and state-run media are backtracking on its boycott of TWICE showing the group’s videos and blocking negative comments on sites like Weibo.

Nationalism might be a strong force but it’s an unstable and not one the Chinese government is always able to harness for its own means. Nationalists are loyalties lie with their country not always their government and their own agendas which don’t necessarily match the administration’s.

China has been opening up its media and entertainment industry to foreign companies in the past few years hoping to expand both domestically and internationally. To do that they need expertise that is currently lacking in China and Korean entertainment companies which create high quality products provide a good alternative to American ones which have values China is still wary of. Similarly Confucian Korean entertainment products are already popular in China and although the Korean entertainment industry would stand to lose a fortune if Chinese audiences became hostile to Korean-made products, it seems doubtful the Chinese government would be willing to risk the injection of investment and expertise they offer over a 16-year-old waving a flag.

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Remember all those articles about Chimaek fever in China after My Love From Another Star?

China wants to assert itself and its values over Korean entertainment companies, not ban them forever or make them wary of investing in the country’s media. President Xi has also said he wants to win over the hearts of Taiwanese people who view themselves as increasingly distant from China and persecuting a teenage girl for simply being Taiwanese is not a good way to go about achieving that. Hopefully this means in a few months we will see this start to settle down and things return to normal.

Once the dust settles the longterm damage may be to JYP – not necessarily even so much in China but in Korea and, of course, Taiwan.

Taiwanese hackers have claimed responsibility for a DDoS attack which has brought down JYP’s website while if this editorial is anything to go by, Koreans are also not happy with the way Park Jin-young has handled everything:

“This situation started with JYP’s mistake of making Tzuyu wave the Taiwanese flag and the ignorance of MBC producers who couldn’t understand this issue properly. But it seems Park Jin-young has , while leaving all wrongdoing with Tzuyu, stealthily escaped with a pretend apology.

“I’m not sure if Park Jin-young has returned to the hearts of Chinese fans but, at least to domestic fans, it’s become clear that they’re being seen as an entertainment company that scrapes while pushing 16-year-old girl group member to the front. And at the same time Park Jin-young’s become someone who doesn’t properly understand the word “responsibility”. Again, if Park Jin-young by himself had apologized, this issue could’ve been brought to an end.”

Luckily for TWICE, as we’ve all learned by now, consumers’ negative views of an agency don’t tend to affect their artists. In fact, although her future in China is still uncertain, there’s still hope Tzuyu may even have gained more fans out of this controversy.

One thing’s for sure – more people know her name than they did two weeks ago.

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