Uncool China fails to woo Taiwan’s youth

Uncool China fails to woo Taiwan’s youth
For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) fourth-most powerful figure recently called for extra efforts to get Taiwan’s youth into the China boat. In a speech at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jia Qinglin, chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) – the country’s top political advisory body, emphasized that it’s crucial that the island’s young people “identify more closely with the Chinese nation and culture.” 

While Jia’s statement certainly gave the starter’s gun to a number of jolly state-sponsored cross-strait youth outings, more game-changers factors are subtly influencing Taiwanese youth’s hearts and minds. 

That Beijing – despite the spectacular cross-strait rapprochement lately – continues to battle with a weighty image problem in

Taiwan can hardly be called a secret. In droves of surveys, the island’s youth has stubbornly said they feel more Taiwanese than Chinese, and that Japan but not China is their favorite country. They say they would only consider moving to China in order to make more money, not because they think it’s trendy or cool. 

Also the recent frenzy surrounding Jeremy Lin, the first American-born NBA player of Chinese descent, was telling: As Lin’s parents were born in Taiwan, the local youth lauded Lin as one of their own while flatly dismissing China’s claims on him. That Taiwan and China could together take pride on the basketball star because he, like the vast majority of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, happens to be a “hua ren” – an ethnic Chinese – didn’t cross the minds of the many young white-collar workers and students in Taiwan who stayed up all night to see Lin’s games in Taipei sports bars. 

It seems that Beijing’s initiatives to make “China” an appealing brand name to the island’s youth is failing to bear fruits. One reason could be that fancy soft power drives were launched elsewhere – eg, by renting a huge Time’s Square billboard for the state-run news agency Xinhua or extending a hand to Hollywood producers – but the actions the Chinese took targeting young Taiwanese were more low key. 

Last year, Chinese President Hu Jintao, as part of a program aiming at engaging 10,000 youngsters from both sides of the Taiwan Strait, invited Taiwanese into the Great Hall of the People for sessions of traditional calligraphy, Tibetan Thangka paintings and Taiwanese ethnic minority lyrics, among others. Also some cross-strait high school basketball games were held recently. Furthermore, over a hundred Chinese universities opened their doors to Taiwanese high school graduates in 2010. 

However, when the targeted groups are asked the question “What’s your favorite country?” by a social networking website, China still garners hardly more than 5% of the votes, while Japan, Taiwan’s former colonial power and China’s arch rival, usually rakes in well over 40%. 

There are signs that Beijing’s drive to woo the island’s young will gain traction before very long. It’s just that the soft power tools of choice aren’t calligraphy jamborees and their likes. 

“Chinese pop music and TV idol dramas are gradually becoming more popular with the Taiwanese youth,” said York Chiou, a professor at Shih Hsin University Department of Radio, Television and Film, in Taipei. “In the past, it used to be Taiwanese artists who went to the mainland and became famous, not vice versa.” 

And indeed, a Chinese reach-out to Taiwan’s youth via music, TV and movies is under way. In a layered salvo of productions, different age groups and audiences are taken on and likely to some extent or another influenced for the good of the Chinese cause. 

Targeting the very little ones, there’s Xi Yang Yang, or Happy Lamb and Grey Wolf, a cartoon series that is broadcast daily on Taiwanese TV. In it, a family of dumb wolves tries to catch lambs that attend a lamb school but always fails. While the storyline itself can hardly be categorized as something holding much of a political significance, it could well be the craze surrounding it: Xi Yang Yang dolls, toys and stickers are extremely popular in the island’s nurseries, effectively beginning to elbow away Japan’s Hello Kitty and Doraemon. In terms of soft power, the formula is simple: If the wolves and lambs of China manage to oust the mouthless cat of Japan from Taiwanese children’s daily lives, it will eventually make some difference to the new generation’s attitudes also in the political realm. It’s the McDonald’s system: today’s happy toddlers are tomorrow’s loyal consumers. 

Woju, or Dwelling Narrowness, can be taken as a prime example of how Chinese TV productions slowly but steadily change the perceptions of Taiwanese in their 20s. The TV series portrays the difficulties of buying an affordable home in Chinese cities and puts the spotlight also on other social issues in contemporary urban China. 

Ho Pao-sui, a lecturer at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University, explained what a significant mark the series has been leaving on young Taiwanese viewers’ impressions of mainland China. 

“We Taiwanese have seen mainlanders traditionally as lazy communists, who get their houses arranged by the state”, she said. “But through this series, we come to understand that they are like us – they diligently struggle for a better life.” 

Ho then made mention of yet another TV drama in Beijing’s bag of tricks. In Men Dang Fu Bu Dui, or Meet the Parents, which is a cross-strait coproduction, a young mainland Chinese man falls in love with a young Taiwanese woman. Due to one cultural misunderstanding following another, she initially rejects him, and so does her family and his her, but as the story unfolds, both sides come to know each other, and, of course, eventually love each other. 

“A bit of a trivial story line; but who knows, it might work”, Ho said. 

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