A celebrity couple’s divorce has become a symbol of declining China-Taiwan relations

Two sides.
Two sides.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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It only took a divorce for Wang Xiaofei to become China’s latest national hero.

Wang, a Chinese businessman who runs restaurants and hotels, has received overwhelming praise from fellow citizens after he and his wife, Taiwanese actor Barbie Hsu, announced the end of their marriage of over a decade last month. Neither Wang nor Hsu, who is a household name thanks to her roles in several hit TV shows and movies, explained the reason for the split. But many believe Wang’s aggressively nationalistic remarks were the last straw.

In June, Wang angrily posted on China’s Weibo, saying “we have long been smeared and used” by a bunch of “traitors of China.” He attached a hashtag relating to the news that some Taiwanese residents arriving in a Chinese city had tested positive for covid. Wang later apologized and deleted the mention of “traitors” from the post.

Wang, who sometimes poses with a Chinese national flag, also criticized the pandemic situation in Taiwan, which was in the middle of a second covid wave at the time, complaining that his family had not been vaccinated. Reports on the divorce say cultural fault lines widened as the couple spent much of the pandemic apart, with Wang flying in and out of Taiwan to visit his wife and two children, who mainly live on the island.

“Wang could be the first man who divorced his wife for his patriotism,” said a commentator on Weibo, where Wang has around 6.5 million followers.

Of course, it’s unclear exactly who’s divorcing whom. While Hsu has refrained from expressing similar sentiments about Taiwan, according to some reports the actor decided to divorce Wang soon after his rant in June. Representatives for Wang and Hsu didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The controversies around the former couple, whose ups and downs are often compared in China to the US reality show Keeping Up With The Kardashians, paint a picture of the increasingly confrontational attitude in China towards Taiwan. For decades, citizens from both sides of the straits have sidestepped the tricky political relations of the Communist-ruled People’s Republic of China, and the democratically governed Republic of China (as Taiwan is formally called), to forge personal and professional ties. Taiwanese businesses have been integral to China’s economic advance, and music stars and actors from Taiwan have long found audiences in the mainland. That coexistence often relied on people on both sides dancing around what it means to be Taiwanese.

“But as Chinese ultra-nationalism boils over under Xi [Jinping], there is no longer space for ambiguity between nationality and cultural identity,” said Joshua Yang, a doctoral student who tweets about Taiwanese identity and relations with the PRC.

As opportunities for Taiwanese and Chinese residents to connect directly through study, work, or jobs shrink, it could harden attitudes in the mainland even further.

Taiwanese actress Barbie Hsu attends a photocall for [Taiwanese director Chao-Pin Su's] out of competition film "Guisi" at the 59th Cannes Film Festival May 24, 2006.
Taiwanese actor Barbie Hsu, known as Big S, is splitting from Chinese businessman Wang Xiaofei.
Image: Reuters

Growing calls in China for “reunification”

In September, the patriotic song Traveling to Taiwan in 2035, which alludes to Beijing’s talk of a building a high-speed train to Taipei, fanned a wave of nationalist fervor. The following month, Liu Junchuan, the deputy director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that China would “fully use” Taiwan’s fiscal revenue to improve its social welfare after “reunification,” sparking enthusiastic discussions on Chinese social media about the prospect of moving to Taiwan. Hundreds of recent videos on Chinese short video apps Douyin and Kuaishou either reference the song or imagine a future “after reunification.” Liu’s ambitious remarks came shortly after a speech about Taiwan made by the Chinese president Xi Jinping, who said reunification must be achieved, albeit in a peaceful way.

Despite never having ruled on the island, where the Kuomintang retreated in 1949 after being defeated by the Communists in China’s civil war, the Communist Party promotes the idea that there has always been “one China,” which includes Taiwan. The notion is instilled in children’s education and used as a lens through which to scrutinize the communications of multinational companies. Although calls within China to “reunite with Taiwan” aren’t new, there has been a spike in such sentiment, some of it directed at Taiwanese business figures or personalities like Hsu.

Despite Hsu’s general silence on politics—apart from criticizing Taiwan’s president in June due to the shortage of vaccines—Chinese commenters have accused her of supporting Taiwan’s independence. Many comments on her Weibo page tell her never to come back to China if she’s not willing to live in the country with her children full time. There are sympathetic voices toward Hsu as well, mostly from Chinese women who feel Wang is exploiting patriotism to promote his business even at the cost of his wife’s feelings, and who say she has sacrificed too much for the marriage.

Alongside the more emphatic rhetoric, China has increased its shows of force around the island. In the first week of October, starting on China’s Oct. 1 National Day, it sent some 150 military aircraft into the island’s Air Defence Identification Zone, a buffer area Taiwan monitors outside its sovereign airspace.

A Taiwanese professional who lives in Hong Kong said he had noted the change, even though “the threat of war from China has always had a strong presence.” “I’m pretty used to the talk of ‘recovering Taiwan’ from the Chinese side, but the frequency of such talk seems to have increased recently,” he said, asking not to use his name.

Relations have been on the downswing since 2016, after the election of president Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party. Taiwan’s increasing closeness to the US, which made $5 billion in arms sales to the island in 2020, has also irritated Beijing. President Joe Biden recently rattled Beijing by saying he is committed to defending Taiwan in case of an attack by China—a departure from the US stance of strategic ambiguity on the matter (The White House later walked back the statement).

After an announcement last month from the commerce ministry reminding people to be prepared for emergencies sent searches on Baidu of “war” and “Taiwan” soaring, and caused panic buying, state media has sought to quell the idea that China intends to accomplish reunification imminently or militarily.

Still, China does have some kind of a timeline in mind. Bringing Taiwan back into the fold is seen by the Party as part of China’s “national rejuvenation,” which the country hopes to make significant progress toward by 2035, and achieve by 2049. But Taiwan, which closely watched events in Hong Kong, where six months of pro-democracy protests in 2019 were followed by an authoritarian crackdown, has rejected China’s model for integration.

China wants Taiwanese to pick a side

China in November warned Taiwanese companies that have operations in China not to support independence. Soon after, Douglas Hsu, a Taiwanese tycoon whose company was recently fined by China, came out to say that he opposes Taiwan independence.

Dee Hsu, a Taiwanese TV host and younger sister of Barbie Hsu, also had to declare her opposition to Taiwan independence in August, after she faced fury from Chinese internet users for cheering for the victory of some Taiwanese athletes at the Tokyo Olympics. But despite the younger Hsu’s statement, she has been decried as a “double-faced” figure for not voicing support for reunification.

Yet, Yang says, these harder lines could in turn consolidate a Taiwanese identity in opposition to China.

After all, “as long as you acknowledge the fact that Taiwan or the Republic of China exists, you would automatically be labeled as a malicious Taiwanese separatist in China,” said Yang.