This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The piece was titled “We Sing the Same Song,” sung by elementary school students in Taiwan for a state-run television special in China over the Lunar New Year.
But the lyrics clearly echoed Beijing’s claims to the democratic island, prompting a public outcry in Taiwan over China’s influence operations.
“We talk to each other on the way to finding our roots,” the choir from Dunhua Elementary School sings in the video performance commissioned by the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian. “Spanning the Taiwan Strait, we have always been one family, our names on the same family tree.”
The work has previously been described as a propaganda song for the Chinese Communist Party’s outreach and influence arm, the United Front Work Department, as it is based on Beijing’s claim that the people of Taiwan are basically Chinese, and all part of the same family, sharing “roots” and a common culture and ancestry.
The piece was called a “United Front song” by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council in 2022, after its performance by Taiwanese singers Jam Hsiao and Ouyang Nana on Chinese state television sparked a public outcry.
The incident comes just weeks after former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou sparked criticism in Taiwan with his comment that Taiwan’s 23 million people are “ethnically Chinese,” during a recent trip to China.
Beijing has threatened a military invasion if Taiwan refuses its plans for “peaceful unification,” a notion it backs up with the claim that people in Taiwan and China are all from the same “family.”
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for continued self-rule, freedom and democracy in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. While the island is formally known as the Republic of China, it has never formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China.
The elementary school’s management had shown “administrative errors” in its implementation of government guidelines on invitations to perform, said Tang Chih-min, who heads the Taipei municipal education bureau.
Asked if the school had been in direct contact with officials from the Fujian United Front Work Department, Tang said state-run Fujian TV had been in direct contact with Principal Liu Chien-nan regarding the performance, instead of going through his department at the municipal government, which owns and runs the school.
Liu had decided in a staff meeting that the song was “inappropriate” for the school’s choir to perform, but went ahead with the project after the TV station agreed to let them omit part of the lyrics, and will be subjected to a performance review as punishment, Tang said in comments reported by several major media outlets in Taiwan.
“Overall I accept this, and the results of the investigation should be respected,” Liu told Radio Free Asia on Friday.
“But I hope the matter will die down soon, because it doesn’t seem to matter what I say — there are still people who disagree,” he said.
The city authorities began their investigation after two city councilors held a news conference accusing the municipal authorities of allowing China’s “United Front” rhetoric to creep into schools unnoticed.
The row has been deeply resonant in Taipei, where ruling Democratic Progressive Party councilors are targeting incoming Mayor Chiang Wan-an, who has deep family ties to Ma Ying-jeou’s opposition Kuomintang, which seeks closer ties with Beijing.
“The Chinese Communist Party has long regarded Taiwan’s youth as a key target of its United Front operations in Taiwan,” the Mainland Affairs Council said of the controversy.
“It has recently stepped up its attempts to promote ‘unification and integration’ [with Taiwan], packaging its United Front aims as cultural and educational exchange,” the council said. “It has already stepped up United Front work among Taiwan’s [university] students, and now it is extending them into primary and secondary schools.”
It called on schools to be more vigilant, so as to “avoid being used for propaganda” by China.
Wu Se-Chih, a researcher at Taiwan’s Cross-Straits Policy Association, said the school had clearly failed to use sufficient political judgment in accepting the invitation to perform.
“Either that or they were overly optimistic about educational exchanges across the Taiwan Strait,” Wu said. “But for the Chinese Communist Party, they were just an instrument.”
“Educational departments should ensure that principals and administrators have greater awareness of and focus on what is going on across the Taiwan Strait, and on China’s United Front operations,” he said.
According to a 2017 report by New Zealand political science professor Anne-Marie Brady, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is leading an accelerated expansion of political influence activities worldwide, much of which rely on overseas community and business groups, under the aegis of the United Front Work Department, the Chinese Communist Party’s outreach and influence arm.
Taiwan’s government under President Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly warned of “cognitive warfare” and disinformation campaigns being waged on the island by agents and supporters of Beijing, recently launching a probe into a company believed to be operating on behalf of TikTok despite a government ban.