A controversy over the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” on Sept. 24 has laid bare some of the political tactics employed by Beijing in Taiwan for its united front work — so-called “soft power,” a propaganda system that champions China’s “innocence” and chastises those who “politicize” its “non-political” activities, local collaborators who capitalize on democracy and freedom of expression, and groups that are willing to resort to violence. Alison Hsiao reports.
Strong protests by National Taiwan University students on Sept. 24 led to the cancellation of a “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” scheduled to take place at the university’s sports field. Among other things, the students accused school administrators of lending the field without conducting a proper assessment, which according to them not only compromised the students’ right of access to the field but also damaged polyurethan running tracks that, earlier this year, had been revamped at the cost of US$1 million.
A change of the name of the university from “National Taiwan University” to “Taipei City Taiwan University” in the event’s promotional material was also deemed unacceptable by the students.
However, something far more troubling was afoot, namely NTU’s interactions with the organizers of the festival, who besides the Taipei City Government included the Shanghai City Cross-Strait Cultural Exchange Promotion Association, the Shanghai Cultural Association, Shanghai Canxing Trading Co., Ltd., and Shanghai Voice of Dream Media Co., the company that produces Sing! China, a Chinese reality TV singing competition.
As protesters gathered on the stage, the NTU administration negotiated with the organizers, who in the end agreed to cancel the event.
While many questions over the signing of the agreement between the school and the event organizers remain unanswered, the fact that various cultural-exchange-cum-entertainment events, innocuous in name, hosted by Chinese groups and companies, are now used to try to gain ground on university campuses in Taiwan is a cause for alarm.
Since the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the Chinese government has shifted the emphasis of its united front work to Taiwanese youth. From the policy slogan “three middles and the youth” (三中一青) — residents of central and southern Taiwan, middle- and low-income families and small- and medium-sized enterprises — in early 2015 to “one generation and one stratum” (一代一線) — the young generation and the grassroots — unveiled by Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Yu Zhengsheng in March 2017, Beijing has been eager to influence what is regarded as the “naturally independence-leaning” generation.
Only after the cancellation of the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival” at NTU did it come to public attention that NTU was only the last stop in the festival’s series of events held on university campuses over the previous week. Moreover, in 2015 and 2016, the show had toured across Taiwan to “hold musical exchanges” at high schools and colleges.
In a press statement the same day, Shanghai Voice of Dream accused critics of “politicizing a music event that is public-welfare-oriented.” Some in Taiwan echoed the sentiment.
In reality, this ostensibly “cultural” event was very much political. For one thing, the Shanghai City Cross-Strait Exchange Promotion Association clearly calls on its website for the “peaceful unification of the motherland.” And Li Wenhui, the “honorary chairman” of the association who came to Taiwan for the musical event, is the Taiwan Affairs Office’s director of the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government.
The willingness of Beijing’s proxies in Taiwan to use physical violence against their ideological opponents was also on full display during the crisis. Members of the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), including party chairman Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) son, Chang Wei, allegedly attacked the protesting students. At least two of them have since been arrested. One assailant used an expandable baton (which he claimed he “happened to find on the ground”) in his attack, resulting in at least three injured protesters.
Violent assaults by pro-unification groups since the pension reform rallies earlier this year are the result of more than a rush of adrenaline in the heat of the moment. These acts of violence, and the fierce debates that follow, are meant to spread fear, distrust and division within society, and to undermine democratic institutions.
As Arch Puddington, a distinguished fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House in the U.S., said recently, China as a “threat to democracy” has been underestimated or intentionally ignored by the international community. Thankfully, democratic societies in the region, such as Australia and New Zealand, have started to raise the alarm, and New York University Professor of Law Jerome A. Cohen has referred to Australia “the canary in our coalmine.” But much more needs to be done to identify China’s united front activities and their detrimental impact on our democratic institutions.
Democratic Taiwan is and should be open to various kinds of cultural exchanges, but we should never forget that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As a target of Beijing’s unification efforts, Taiwan cannot afford to be naïve when facing seemingly innocuous initiatives sponsored by the Chinese government.
Photos by Chou Ya-wei