China Turns the Soft Power on Taiwan

Last Saturday night, in a gala featuring 62 bands and singers, the Mandarin pop extravaganza "Chinese Music Chart Awards," often dubbed China's Grammys, took place - in slightly toned down form? in Taiwan's packed 15,000-seat Taipei Arena.

Established in 2001, the event has previously been held in Shenzhen and Beijing to honor the best albums, best and most favorite male and female vocalists and best composer and lyricist from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland itself. The awards, announced unilaterally by China, were opposed by Taiwan's anti-unification opposition. They appear to be the latest in an unflagging string of stratagems by Beijing to waft soft-power blandishments across the 160-km Taiwan Strait. For better or worse, it appeared to be successful. The opposition was largely ignored.

The story of how one of China's most gaudy pop events ended up in what amounts to enemy territory began in 2005, when Kuomintang heavyweight Lien Chan traveled to China to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao in the latter's capacity as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader. It was the highest level cross-strait exchange since the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945 and it laid the road map for cross-strait negotiations.

"Tackling the easy issues first, then the hard ones" has been the doctrine adhered to since then by both sides.

Those easy issues have included facilitating the implementation of transport links and the signing of 18 cross-strait economic agreements. From mid-2011 on, cultural exchanges have been promoted as a relatively uncontroversial stage of rapprochement. Examples have included festivals celebrating the Min Nan language - spoken both in China's Fujian Province and Taiwan's traditionally China-wary south. Also, four Taiwanese women have recently made it into Chinese state media's Top 10 of China's hottest TV hosts.

However, the glitzy pseudo-Grammy awards, China's 20th which included such Chinese superstars as Zhang Ziyi and Han Geng, sent the island's anti-unification lawmakers into overdrive, denouncing the event as a national abasement. It took careful negotiations to get the event staged, with the organizers putting together a politically precarious grouping, with Chinese performers competing on one league and those from Taiwan and Hong Kong on the other. The administration of President Ma Ying-jeou vetoed that idea, and also vetoed the awards ceremony, so that it became just a concert.

Nonetheless, adding insult to injury to Taiwan's anti-unification corner, the final act earned rapturous applause with a grand cross-strait chorus singing long de chuanren (descendants of the dragon), an ode to the Chinese race's resistance against foreigners looting the motherland. Conspicuous by its absence was the storm of protest that Taiwan's opposition parties had envisioned. Apart from an unimpressive handful of independence supporters displaying anti-unification slogans at the venue's gates, the Taipei audience gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Long deprived of meaningful international events due to China-imposed isolation, they obviously had nothing against this bit of cross-strait glitter.

In an interview with Asia Sentinel, Chen Ching Chang, a political scientist at Japan's Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University who is known for his extensive research on Taiwanese threat perceptions, explained Beijing's calculus.

"To define one's identity is to draw a boundary that separates 'us' from 'them,'" he said. "If A is treated as the 'Other' for B, the former is more likely to be treated as a threat for the latter. From the vantage point of A, successful cultural exchanges with B should be able to produce some sense of affinity that makes B feel that A can be a part of 'us', hence a non-threat or at least less threatening."

With Beijing thus pushing for ever-more glamorous cross-strait festivals in an effort to get the island to lower its guard, the Ma administration, which generally seeks to prolong the ambiguity of the cross-strait status quo - has responded with the creation of a Ministry of Culture and the appointment of Lung Ying-tai, a renowned Hong Kong-based Taiwanese essayist and cultural critic, as its minister. In her writings, Lung has taken on both the historically autocratic Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. She remains anathema to the Chinese government despite her new job in the Beijing-friendly Ma Administration. That cross-strait cultural exchanges are somewhat of a double-edged sword became apparent when in early December she spoke at Hong Kong University to vigorously defend Taiwan's democratic system.

Long de chuanren, Saturday's grand finale, was written by Taiwanese composer Hou Dejian in 1981. It is commonly speculated that it was his direct response to the earlier shifting by the United States of diplomatic recognition from Taipei's Republic of China to Beijing's People's Republic. That move is said to have traumatized Hou as much as it did the entire Taiwanese population.

The song became hugely popular throughout Chinese-speaking world via Hong Kong vocalists although Hou himself has since insisted that his actual inspiration was not US President Jimmy Carter's perceived betrayal of Taiwan, but the Eight-Nation Alliance, an alliance of Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US, whose military forces intervened in China during the Boxer Uprising at the dawn of the 20th century.

As the trope long de chuanren traditionally refers to the existence of an overarching ethnic Chinese identity, the song carried even more political connotations when on Saturday it was sung and celebrated by fraternizing cross-strait celebrities.

Still, according to Chen Ching Chang, what might seem an outright "mission accomplished" for Beijing's culture crusade for unification is hardly much more than a stage win. In fact, the political scientists said, there is even some chance that the strategy could backfire.

"Cultural exchanges might well remind people that 'we are different from them'," Chen said. "China and Japan have had more teenagers involved in cultural exchange programs during the past decade, but Japanese perceptions about China and the Chinese have actually continued to deteriorate. In this sense, 'high politics' still trumps 'low politics'."