[Big read] Will Taiwan ban TikTok and Douyin for fear of mainland China's influence?

Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Miao Zong-Han notes that as TikTok and Douyin grow in popularity in Taiwan, there are concerns about mainland China’s influence in terms of cultural invasion. Is this really a "subtle" way to guide society towards eventual reunification, or is it just pure entertainment for young people?
The “kemusan dance competition” at Ningxia Night Market in Taipei, in January 2024. (SPH Media)
The “kemusan dance competition” at Ningxia Night Market in Taipei, in January 2024. (SPH Media)

Despite the evening damp and chill brought about by a cold snap in late January, the "kemusan dance competition" (科目三舞蹈大赛) at Ningxia Night Market in Taipei attracted a large crowd that packed the narrow streets. "Kemusan dance" on mainland China’s short video platform Douyin (with its overseas version being TikTok) is sweeping Taiwan with stunning speed.

Rise of Kemusan

Ke mu san (lit. Subject Three) is the name of the road test for obtaining a driver’s licence in mainland China; as for the origin of the kemusan dance, there are many versions. The most widely circulated version is that it originated from a performance by a guest during a wedding in Guangxi, leaving a deep impression.

Netizens later joked that “Guangxi people are subject to three tests in their lifetime: singing folk songs, eating rice noodles and dancing”. They praised Guangxi people for their dancing skills, and so the dance known as kemusan spread online.

Last June, Douyin livestreamer “Gods are not in Handan” (神不在邯郸) posted his version of the kemusan dance paired with the strong, lively beat of the DJ remix of the song “Smile in Jianghu” (《一笑江湖》). After being posted, the dance went viral again, and netizens scrambled to imitate it.

... some even describe it as “dancing to unify Taiwan”.

kemusan
Kids doing the kemusan dance at Ningxia Night Market. (SPH Media)

The kemusan trend began to sweep through Taiwan’s young population in the second half of last year, with many people actively showing their skills on social media platforms. Riding on the wave, Ningxia Night Market announced the kemusan dance competition on 16 January. Within two hours, more than 40 groups signed up, double the expected number of 20 groups.

However, with kemusan originating from mainland China’s social media platforms, there are also many in Taiwan who feel negatively about it, saying that it is an aggressive cultural invasion by mainland China — some even describe it as “dancing to unify Taiwan”.

Cultural invasion or entertainment?

After Ningxia Night Market announced the dance competition, about 18,000 people responded to a call on Facebook to hold signs at the competition venue: “Those who dance kemusan should be locked up.” Although no one caused a scene in the end, the criticisms continued. On the eve of Chinese New Year, some people even launched a Facebook campaign to “Ban relatives’ children from dancing kemusan”, which attracted over 20,000 participants.

In fact, this aversion to Douyin culture is not only aimed at kemusan. Other Douyin songs that previously went viral in Taiwan such as My Surname is Shi (《我姓石》) and the DJ Shi Yan remix of Praying to Buddha (《求佛》) were also criticised. There is even a saying in Taiwan: “When Douyin chimes, parents have raised their children in vain”, mocking Douyin users and showing a serious social divide.

Hu Han-bin was one of the contestants in the kemusan dance competition held at Ningxia Night Market. The 20-year-old studied performance in high school and is now a performer. He has only been using Douyin for a few months, but has already amassed over 66,000 followers, and his TikTok account has also gained nearly 300,000 likes.

social media
The Taiwan Internet Information Center released the 2023 Taiwan Internet Report, noting that TikTok has become the third largest social media platform among Taiwanese. (SPH Media)

He told Lianhe Zaobao that he first started using Douyin just for fun and did not expect to wake up to tens of thousands of likes overnight, which prompted him to take it seriously. He shared that he even earns some advertising revenue, which is a nice bonus.

Amid the criticism in Taiwan, Hu remains unconcerned, as he feels that it is due to some people scrutinising Douyin because it comes from mainland China. In fact, most users are on Douyin purely for entertainment and do not care about or want to see political content on the app.

As a user of these mainland Chinese social media platforms, Lin [a university student in Taiwan] admitted that she is more easily influenced by mainland Chinese trends in terms of language, food and popular culture.

Gaining popularity among youths

In August last year, the Taiwan Internet Information Center released the 2023 Taiwan Internet Report, noting that TikTok has become the third largest social media platform among Taiwanese, following after Facebook (55.83% of the market share) and Instagram (20.79%); TikTok accounts for 2.65% of the market share.

Additionally, among 2,153 surveyed adults aged 18 and above in all 22 counties and municipalities in Taiwan, 22.31% use TikTok, with the majority being students and young people aged 18 to 29, as well as middle-aged individuals aged 40 to 49, mainly residing in central Taiwan.

Lin Ciao-Ling, who uses both TikTok and Douyin, is a university graduate who entered the workforce just last year. She has been using Douyin for a few years and only started using both platforms after she came across funny videos that were reposted on Facebook. As for the differences between the two, Lin said that she uses Douyin more frequently because it offers more Chinese short videos than TikTok.  

She also uses Xiaohongshu but mainly for browsing through clothes and shopping.

As a user of these mainland Chinese social media platforms, Lin admitted that she is more easily influenced by mainland Chinese trends in terms of language, food and popular culture. For example, she also buys luosifen (螺蛳粉, lit. river snail rice noodles) online and started watching mainland movies and drama series in recent years.

People take photos at a shopping district in Taipei, Taiwan, 19 February 2024. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
People take photos at a shopping district in Taipei, Taiwan, on 19 February 2024. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

Wu You-Syuan, another fresh entrant into the workforce, is also a TikTok and Xiaohongshu user, but she has been exposed to mainland Chinese social media platforms since she was in high school and has used them for a longer time than Lin. Just like Lin, Wu also uses these platforms for entertainment.  

Both of them mentioned that while many of their colleagues are also TikTok and Xiaohongshu users, no one specifically discusses them or takes the initiative to say that they use mainland Chinese social media platforms. But they do not think that this is a politically sensitive issue; using these platforms in their everyday lives is nothing out of the ordinary.  

"... it may not necessarily be something severe or grim like cultural invasion.” — Niu Tse-hsun, Chair, Chinese Culture University's advertising department

Experts: exaggeration of influence not necessary

Tai Yu-Hui, an associate professor at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University’s Department of Communication and Technology, told Lianhe Zaobao that it is very common in the process of cross-cultural communication for Taiwanese people to watch mainland movies and television programmes, use mainland social media platforms, and use mainland Chinese terms. In the same way that Taiwanese people have picked up many Korean terms after watching Korean dramas, this does not mean that their identity will be affected.

Niu Tse-hsun, chair of the Chinese Culture University’s advertising department, thinks that Taiwanese people’s use of mainland terms is the communication logic of the community era. “That is to say, if I want to enter this community today, I have to use the language that the community uses. This is just to expand my followers; it may not necessarily be something severe or grim like cultural invasion,” he explained.  

People walk beneath lanterns at a street in Taipei, Taiwan on 4 February 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)
People walk beneath lanterns at a street in Taipei, Taiwan, on 4 February 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)

However, Tai observed that students are often unwilling to disclose any information when openly asked in class if they use Douyin or TikTok, and will only talk about it in private. She thinks that this is the countereffect of criticising youths for using mainland Chinese social media platforms; it has not only caused opposition but also made it more difficult to detect trends in the younger generation’s use of social media platforms.

TikTok influencing Taiwan elections?

TikTok has become the third largest social media platform used by the Taiwanese. However, the app was seen as one of the main channels for the spread of disinformation during the Taiwan presidential and legislative elections.

Doublethink Lab, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focusing on topics such as disinformation and cognitive warfare, announced on 19 January the preliminary results of the impact of foreign information manipulation on the 2024 Taiwan elections.

Between October 2023 and 13 January 2024 when the votes were cast, over 10,000 pieces of online information were collected from major social media platforms used in Taiwan including X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Dcard and PTT; as well as those used in mainland China such as Weibo, TikTok/Douyin and Bilibili.

Doublethink Lab found that debatable topics such as the import of eggs and US pork have been followed up by mainland China’s state media and disseminated through a large number of coordinated accounts, which reinforces and amplifies Taiwan’s existing social conflicts and controversial issues.

In addition, the NGO also discovered short videos shot by two Taiwanese internet celebrities before the elections about vote fraud rumours, with highly similar lines and material. 

These accounts would post rumour-mongering political content only at crucial junctures, and these posts would typically receive a lot of views. — Yang Shun-ching, Data Analysis Team Leader, Doublethink Lab

This photo illustration taken on 22 December 2023 shows a user on the TikTok app looking at videos with the hashtag "Taiwan will only be better if the DPP falls", referring to Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in Taipei, Taiwan. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)
This photo illustration taken on 22 December 2023 shows a user on the TikTok app looking at videos with the hashtag "Taiwan will only be better if the DPP falls", referring to Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in Taipei, Taiwan. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)

Apart from this, a Taiwan AI Labs report released in January showed that TikTok had a clear party bias in its information manipulation during the election period, with an overwhelming support for Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) — there were four times more online posts related to Ko than those of candidates from the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps, with 76% of posts related to Ko being relatively positive.

Jaw Shaw-kong, who was the Kuomintang (KMT)’s vice-presidential candidate, also criticised TikTok’s heavy interference in the elections and accused Taiwan’s Central Election Commission, National Communications Commission and the Ministry of Digital Affairs for not conducting investigations.  

Disinformation from inconspicuous lifestyle accounts

As for whether there was content related to Taiwan politics on TikTok and Douyin, TikTok user Wu noticed election-related content during the period closer to the elections but she would swipe them away without hesitation being extremely put off by such content. She also believes they would not affect her political stance. 

However, Yang Shun-ching, data analysis team leader at Doublethink Lab, told Lianhe Zaobao that according to their observations, fake information on TikTok that interferes with the elections were often spread through inconspicuous lifestyle accounts.

These accounts would post rumour-mongering political content only at crucial junctures, and these posts would typically receive a lot of views. Yang cautioned that it would be difficult for the general public to determine whether such posts had any real impact on them.

To ban or not to ban

As for how to deal with TikTok, the Taiwanese government is faced with a dilemma. 

The Executive Yuan in late 2022 banned its employees from using Douyin and viewed the app as a medium for cognitive warfare. Executive Yuan Premier Chen Chien-jen also stated openly that Douyin has become a platform for cognitive warfare by some countries, and that Douyin and TikTok has been banned in civil service departments, adding that the government would step up efforts to educate the public to improve media literacy. 

“A ban would offend the youths, and impact your votes from the group.” — Niu

Taiwan Premier Chen Chien-jen speaks at Parliament in Taipei on 20 February 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)
Taiwan Premier Chen Chien-jen speaks at Parliament in Taipei on 20 February 2024. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

In January post-elections, Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau specially set up the Cognitive Warfare Research Center, which collates and analyses real-time reports of suspected influences by foreign forces that are impacting Taiwan’s security, disrupting social stability and damaging relations with allies.

The centre also uses software to trace and investigate suspicious accounts, liaise with social media platform companies to remove disinformation, as well as issue news reports that expose these disinformation attempts.

However, such actions were criticised by the opposition as restricting freedom of speech; even Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Central Standing Committee member Hsu Shu-hua stated publicly that it was not necessary to ban Douyin, and that the DPP should focus on issues that it has long neglected instead, such as how it engages young people on campuses and how new media technologies affect them.

Niu noted that the DPP would not dare to ban Douyin because it has grown to be the primary social media platform for young people and generates a significant amount of social traffic. “A ban would offend the youths, and impact your votes from the group,” he said. 

Niu felt that the DPP may turn to social platforms such as Meta’s Threads to reach out to young voters. As for the opposition, although both the KMT and the TPP have been building up their TikTok accounts, the former has a general image of being old-fashioned, and their promotional approach lacks creativity, making it hard for them to gain young voters via TikTok. In comparison, the TPP has more of an advantage in this area. 

They unanimously agreed that it is simply an entertainment platform with no impact on their political stance or how they view their national identity. 

Improving people’s media literacy

Whether it is kemusan contestant Hu who manages both Douyin and TikTok accounts, or people like social media users Lin and Wu who are only observers on these platforms, none of them felt that there is a need to ban Douyin. They unanimously agreed that it is simply an entertainment platform with no impact on their political stance or how they view their national identity. 

 Tourists release sky lanterns in Pingxi Old Street during the Lantern Festival in New Taipei City on 17 February 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)
Tourists release sky lanterns in Pingxi Old Street during the Lantern Festival in New Taipei City on 17 February 2024. (I-Hwa Cheng/AFP)

Yang Shun-ching admitted that politically, it would be extremely difficult or even impossible for Taiwan to issue a blanket ban on Douyin. He felt that in the face of cognitive warfare risk, Taiwan's current options are to bolster public and government efforts in promoting media literacy, and further integrate the functions of agencies handling digital crimes. 

Tai from National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University noted that the internal divide in Taiwanese society is actually the root of the problem when it comes to whether or not to guard against Douyin. She added: “Taiwan is essentially cautious and fearful of mainland China. However, in trying to protect itself, it is creating a situation  of internal conflict in Taiwan."

She opined that constantly emphasising the cognitive warfare of Douyin could create a “crying wolf” problem — the public could become numb, and it could even exacerbate social division and conflict. A better way is to systematically and consistently explain to the public how the Chinese Communist Party spreads propaganda and united front rhetoric through various avenues and raise public understanding on the issue — not just talk about it during elections.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “文化入侵还是纯属娱乐 台青爱玩TikTok禁或不禁都难”.

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