Pop culture bridges political gap

Beijing's Communist leaders have tried to erect great walls of control over Internet use and satellite reception here, but each day cultural "Trojan horses" from democratic Taiwan stampede the divide.

In Taiwan, government gatekeepers try to screen every film, television program, and pop song received from the Chinese mainland for propaganda. Yet demand for products from China is expanding.

Despite the political skirmishes that have dominated official ties between capitalist Taiwan and communist China since their 1949 split during the Chinese civil war, a digital revolution is forging new bridges between youths from each side.

China's 20-year-old opening to the world, "combined with satellite television, the Internet, and increased exchanges, is boosting the emergence of a cultural Greater China," says Zhu Feng, an executive at MTV Asia's Beijing office.

Young urban Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait say the World Wide Web and programming like MTV's are opening windows on a previously inaccessible rival society, and many are finding that their similarities are myriad. "If you took a high school student from Beijing and put him in Taipei, he would fit right in - in terms of language, fashion, and musical tastes," says Mr. Zhu.

Greater China has been perceived as a loose economic grouping that funneled investment and technology from Taiwan and Hong Kong into the mainland's massive, cheap labor market.

Stepped-up contacts are now spawning a pan-Chinese pop culture that is spreading and gaining speed as the digital global village links the three regions into a "virtual" union, says Ken Farrall, the head of Matrix East Inc., which sponsors a Web site on Internet use in China. "The Internet is changing the concept of Greater China into a concrete entity," says Mr. Farrall.

A united Chinese culture is in many ways a leap forward into the past, before the Communist revolution tore the two sides of the Taiwan Strait apart.

When the Nationalists lost the mainland to Mao Zedong's Red Army nearly half a century ago, they transformed Taiwan into a microcosm of the mainland. Refugees ranging from film directors to pop singers helped preserve traditional and popular Chinese culture.

On the mainland, "Mao set out to create a new communist world by destroying every trace of China's past," says a cultural historian in Beijing. "Chinese theater, painting, music, and movies were completely wiped out and replaced with politicized arts to serve the party," he says. "When Mao's death ended the Cultural Revolution [in 1976], the mainland entered an artistic vacuum, and that's when Taiwan's culture began rushing in to fill the void."

Mao's successors ended a ban on contacts with Taiwan, and the mainland's socialist anthems could not compete with the island's syrupy love songs.

"For decades here, the party tried to eliminate individual feelings and lifestyles to promote the collective," says the historian. "So when Taiwan's pop songs started invading the mainland, the Chinese people discovered a whole new range of emotions that had been buried by the revolution."

Tiny Taiwan has managed to conquer the titanic Chinese music market: The mainland's airwaves are now dominated by pop from Taiwan and the West, says Zhang Youdai, a disc jockey at Beijing Music Radio.

And just as Taiwanese investors put cross-strait political tensions in the background to bring capital and management expertise to the mainland, a handful of record producers began searching here for raw talent.

Landy Chang, who heads the Taipei-based Magic Stone Records, says he traveled to Beijing in the early 1990s "to start a revolution in the Chinese rock scene." Mr. Chang signed a handful of Chinese rock artists who had been spurned by Beijing's state-run music industry and set out to release their works on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Yet while the dark nihilism that pervaded most Chinese heavy metal and punk following the Chinese Army's 1989 attack on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing captured a growing share of the mainland market, it largely foundered in happy-go-lucky Taiwan.

Another barrier to a musical counter-invasion of Taiwan from the mainland was "a virtual news blackout in Taiwan on Chinese social and musical trends," says Qiu Shuang, a university student who operates a Beijing-based Web site called Rock China.

Taiwan official C.J. Chang says Taipei "censors every broadcast or cultural product from the mainland." Even Chinese rock bands, long branded politically suspect by China's rulers, are screened under Taiwan's blanket ban on Communist propaganda.

That ban has made many Taiwan media shy away from coverage of the mainland arts, but a growing number of Taiwan's youths are finding ways around the government's barriers. "Rock China is getting more and more e-mails from young Taiwanese who are interested in Chinese bands," says Mr. Qiu.

Beijing deejay Zhang says a nascent renaissance in the Chinese arts, along with the influx of global pop music into both sides of the Taiwan Strait, could finally fuel mainland music's march into Taiwan.

China's commercial revolution is beginning to erode the party's controls on "decadent bourgeois culture." For a decade, MTV was available here only via illicit satellite dish antennas. But the music channel "is now being broadcast by cable stations in ... major cities across China," says Zhu. He adds that for the first time in MTV Asia's history, a mainland Chinese band, Qingxing, has beaten its Taiwanese competitors to climb to the top of the charts. The band is also likely to hurdle Taiwan's political barriers to release its first album there next month.

"We speak the same language and use the same characters" to write, says Taiwan official Chang. "If political relations between the two sides of the Strait improve, Taiwan's controls on culture from the mainland are likely to be eased."

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