An award acceptance speech by a young Taiwanese filmmaker has stirred passionate reactions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, pitting some of the region’s leading entertainment and political figures against each other just a week before an important election on the self-ruled island.
“I really hope our country will one day be treated as a genuine independent entity,” said an emotional Fu Yue, the best documentary winner at Taiwan’s annual Golden Horse film awards Saturday, to loud applause and cheers from the audience in Taipei.
“This is my biggest wish as a Taiwanese,” the 36-year-old director added.
But when the camera turned to several mainland Chinese movie stars in attendance, including this year’s jury chair Gong Li, they appeared stone-faced. Taiwan-born and US-based director Ang Lee, a two-time Oscar winner who heads the awards’ executive committee, flashed an awkward smile.
When Chinese actor Tu Men walked on stage later, the recipient of last year’s best actor award poignantly said he was honored to be a presenter at the Golden Horse ceremony in “Taiwan, China” and that people from both sides of the Taiwan Strait were “family.”
The Beijing government considers the self-governed and democratic Taiwan, an island of 23 million people off China’s southeastern coast, an integral part of its territory. The two sides split in 1949 following the Communist victory on the Chinese mainland after a bloody civil war.
The Golden Horse awards, often called Taiwan’s Academy Awards, was founded by the island’s authorities in 1962. In recent years, however, it has evolved into a major platform for Chinese-language filmmakers around the world to showcase their work, attracting stars from Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and elsewhere – despite periodic political and military tensions between Taipei and Beijing.
The war of words this year escalated after the award ceremony, with Fu’s social media pages inundated with vitriolic comments. Numerous Chinese celebrities, including disgraced megastar Fan Bingbing, joined millions of internet users on the mainland to retweet a Chinese map that includes Taiwan with a superimposed national flag.
Even Taiwan’s leader waded into the debate, with President Tsai Ing-wen calling the Golden Horse moment a highlight of the island’s freedoms and diversity that nurture artistic creativity.
“We have never accepted and will never accept the ‘Taiwan, China’ label – Taiwan is Taiwan,” she wrote Sunday to her more than two million followers on Facebook. “I’m proud of the Golden Horse ceremony yesterday because it accentuated how Taiwan is different from China.”
“Nobody will disappear or be censored because of different remarks and we don’t have sensitive keywords blocked on the internet,” she added, taking a swipe at the Beijing government’s notoriously stifling restrictions on freedom of speech.
In their Golden Horse coverage, Chinese media outlets quickly scrubbed clean any references to Fu and her winning documentary “Our Youth in Taiwan,” a film about a 2014 student protest movement on the island.
Beijing’s official response so far has been relatively subdued, however – with even Fu’s seldom-used account on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, still intact.
Analysts say the Chinese authorities are mindful of their actions’ impact on Taiwan’s hotly contested local elections this coming Saturday, where Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is facing an uphill battle amid a sluggish economy and rising tensions with Beijing.
“The DPP and media in its camp are seizing this incident as their last gambit – hyping up the issue of cross-strait relations to boost the DPP’s electoral chances,” said Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s nationalistic tabloid Global Times, in a video posted on Weibo. “The Chinese public should be on alert about this.”
Following Tsai’s rise to power in Taiwan in 2016, relations between Taipei and Beijing have quickly deteriorated. The Chinese Communist leadership has hardened its stance because of concerns over strong pro-independence sentiment within Taiwan’s ruling party.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has increased drills around the island while Beijing has repeatedly warned Washington over increasingly close political and military ties with Taipei under US President Donald Trump.
The Beijing government has also worked to poach Taiwan’s remaining small number of formal diplomatic allies and squeeze Taipei out of any international gatherings, in addition to ramping up pressure on global companies to drop references to Taiwan as an independent entity.
Despite the vicious attacks she received for her pro-independence speech, Fu has expressed no regrets and brushed aside criticisms that she should have avoided talking politics in a rare platform for cross-strait cultural exchanges.
“I didn’t make my remarks ‘on an impulse,’ or ‘instigated by the DPP government’ as suggested by some Chinese netizens,” she wrote on her Facebook page Sunday. “I said what I had always wanted to say about the film.”
“My film is about politics,” she added. “As director, I have to speak for my work.”