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Golden Horse Awards Ceremony Sparks Political Firestorm in China and Taiwan

A politically charged acceptance speech at the Golden Horse Awards has become a flashpoint for the escalating tensions between China and Taiwan, prompting even recently chastised megastar Fan Bingbing to chime in with her support for the Communist-ruled mainland.

The controversy immediately raised questions over the future of Asia’s most prestigious awards show – the Chinese-language film industry’s version of the Oscars – and over whether mainland Chinese artists will be allowed to participate. Saturday’s ceremony came just days before a key election in democratic, self-governed Taiwan.

Onstage in Taipei to receive her prize for best documentary, 36-year-old director Fu Yue told the crowd: “I really hope that, one day, our country can be treated as a truly independent entity. This is my greatest wish as a Taiwanese person.” Her award-winning film, “Our Youth in Taiwan,” follows young people involved in the 2014 Sunflower Movement, when students occupied Taiwan’s legislative assembly to protest a trade deal with China.

Fu’s statement was met with raucous cheers and applause from some in the audience, but others were less pleased. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory, but many residents on the island support complete independence.

Following Fu’s remarks, shots of actress and jury chair Gong Li, who is from mainland China, showed her looking livid, while Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, head of this year’s executive committee, grimaced. Gong later refused to join Lee onstage to present the award for best feature film, a move many interpreted as a protest.

“Refusing to give the award was probably the strongest counterattack Gong Li could make at the time. She seemed to be saying, ‘As jury chair, I draw a clear line between us,’” said one post on China’s WeChat social media platform, echoing a common refrain.

Fuel was added to the flames when mainland-born Tu Men, winner of last year’s Golden Horse award for best actor, took to the stage with remarks echoing Communist Party rhetoric. Tu said he was honored to be a presenter at the show in “Taiwan, China” and felt everyone was part of “one big family on both sides of the strait.” The remarks were met with effusive praise on the mainland internet but anger from Taiwan, with one Facebook user asking: “Who wants to be in your family?” At another point, mainland filmmaker Zhang Yimou raised eyebrows by referring to all the “Chinese directors” present.

China has not ruled out force as a means to achieve Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland. Beijing has recently upped military drills in the island’s vicinity and pressured its few remaining diplomatic allies to disavow ties, while also forcing major companies like American Airlines and Delta to stop referring to Taiwan as a country. Nevertheless, “Beijing is trying to play down the incident. With an eye to the Taiwan elections, they don’t want to inflame matters at this moment,” a Taiwanese source told Variety, citing conversations with mainland counterparts.

Taiwanese citizens go to the polls Saturday for local elections and a referendum on a wide variety of issues, including whether to uphold legalized same-sex marriage and the use of the name “Taiwan” in international sporting events. It will be the first test of approval for the more pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party currently in power.

Mainland social media has exploded with criticism of Fu’s speech. Users on the Twitter-like Weibo platform have feverishly posted the hashtag “China cannot give up one bit,” often alongside a map depicting Taiwan and portions of the contested South China Sea region as part of the country. In her first public comment since apologizing for tax evasion last month, actress Fan retweeted an old post of the same map and hashtag from China’s Communist Youth League, which prompted expressions of support from fans.

In Taiwan, even President Tsai Ing-Wen commented on the brouhaha. “I’m proud of yesterday’s Golden Horse Awards – it highlighted how Taiwan is different from China,” she wrote Sunday on her Facebook page, which has more than 2 million followers. “Here, no one will disappear or be silenced for their differing opinions, nor will we block sensitive keywords on the internet.”

Ang Lee told reporters after the show that “Taiwan is free and the film festival is open. You can say whatever you want to say….I hope that no one will come and interfere, that the Golden Horse Awards will be very pure. Please, everyone, respect the filmmakers.”

He added: “It’s such a good platform, it’s not easy to keep it going. We’ll do our best. I hope it can continue.

Fu defended her acceptance speech in a Facebook statement Sunday, saying that her documentary was inherently political. “You can’t avoid the topic by simply saying, ‘Let politics be politics; let art be art’… As a director, I had to speak up for my work as a response to the judges’ courage” in selecting it.

Celebrities are frequently blacklisted or banned from entering China after they express pro-independence views. Last year, for instance, Katy Perry was banned from performing at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show in Shanghai for having draped a Taiwanese flag over her shoulders as a cape while wearing a sunflower costume in support of the student movement at a 2015 show in Taipei.

But Fu said she was unconcerned. “Some netizens say, ‘You’re finished, and can’t even think about entering the Chinese film industry.’ Of course, it would be a shame… but whatever the potential professional consequences, I am willing to bear them and feel no regret.”

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