TAIPEI – She is a 16-year-old singer from Taiwan, who performs with a South Korea girl band.
But on Saturday Chou Tzu-yu became the center of a political storm, after she forced to make a humiliating apology to China for daring to hold Taiwan’s flag on Korean television.
The controversy has engulfed social media in Taiwan on the day that the island went to the polls to elect a new president, and has brought the issues of Taiwan’s national identity and its unequal relationship with China back to center stage.
Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou and next president Tsai Ing-wen united in support of the singer.
At a news conference after winning the election, Tsai said the incident had shaken Taiwanese society and angered many people, regardless of their political affiliation. "This particular incident will serve as a constant reminder to me of the importance of our country's strength and unity to those outside our borders," she said.
The singer had appeared on television holding a small Taiwanese flag alongside a Korean flag, only to be called out by a fellow Taiwanese pop star for supposedly supporting Taiwanese independence.
China demand that pop star 周子瑜 bow down + deny Taiwanese nationality triggering strong pre-Taiwan Election backlash. pic.twitter.com/78zO8tWjb2
— Formosa Nation (@FormosaNation) January 15, 2016
In response, her South Korea management company announced it would curtail her commercial activities on the Chinese mainland, apparently scared of offending Beijing, which regards Taiwan as its sovereign territory and has banned other Taiwanese pop stars whose political views it does not like.
Chou appeared in this 87-second video wearing a turtleneck sweater, standing against a white tile background and reading from a script.
“I’m sorry, I should have come out earlier to apologize,” she said. “I didn’t come out until now because I didn't know how to face the situation and the public.”
“There is only one China,” she said. “I am proud I am Chinese. As a Chinese person, while participating in activities abroad, my improper behavior hurt my company and netizens on both sides of the Strait. I feel deeply sorry and guilty. I decided to reflect on myself seriously and suspend all my activities in China.”
In Taiwan, online commentators compared her apology to hostage videos released by the Islamic State, although it was probably more reminiscent of the sort of humiliating confessions that dissidents are increasingly forced to make on Chinese state television. Outgoing President Ma said she had done nothing wrong and called the episode “unjust and unacceptable.”
In China, many young people came out in her support, but their comments were soon swamped on tightly censored social media by nationalist outrage dismissing her apology as insincere.
“Regardless of your public relations efforts, the one-China policy is there, no more, no less, and cannot be challenged,” party mouthpiece People’s Daily said on its official microblog.
Taiwan’s government agency in charges of ties with Beijing said China needed to recognize the negative effect such developments have on Taiwanese sentiments toward the mainland.
“We hope the mainland will take this matter seriously, restrain public behavior and not allow relations between the sides to be affected by this,” the Mainland Affairs Council said.
The agency’s Chinese counterpart, the Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, responded with a statement saying that “some political forces in Taiwan” were exploiting the situation to damage feelings toward the mainland.
“We support artistic exchanges between the sides and consistently encourage exchanges between young people from the two sides,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said.
This video shows Chou’s band Twice in action, in a song called "Like OOH-AHH," with her dancing and singing at 37 seconds.