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McDonald’s ad triggers another tiff over Taiwan


The Chinese translation for a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin is manfubao – or a bun “full of luck”.

But a Taiwanese TV ad featuring the breakfast snack hasn’t been so fortuitous for the fast-food firm.

The short clip – which ran online – showed a high school student on her way to her exams. She drops her exam ID and it gets run over in the mud. All seems lost till a series of unlikely events results in her pass being returned. She wonders why she’s enjoyed such good luck – and as the ad scrolls back in time we see her breakfast: an Egg McMuffin.

So why the fuss? The outcry came from the other side of the Taiwan Strait where it was spotted her exam ID stated her nationality as Taiwanese – a guaranteed irritant to mainland patriots, who regard Taiwan as a province of China.

Sure enough, irked netizens took to social media to demand a boycott of McDonald’s, even though the chain on the mainland is owned by a totally separate company from the Taiwanese franchise (in fact, Citic Capital, an investment arm of the Chinese government, is one of the mainland arm’s key shareholders.)

On January 19 – the day after the ad was pulled in Taiwan – McDonald’s said it “regretted” the commercial which “stirred up unnecessary misunderstanding”. It added:“We have always held a solid ‘One China’ stance and are determined to continue to support China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

No sooner had one wave of outrage died down than another was welling up, however, this time over the loan of a valuable piece of calligraphy from the Taipei National Museum to its equivalent institution in Tokyo.

As many readers will know, many of China’s national treasures are in Taipei – having been transported there by Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government when it fled to the island at the end of China’s civil war in 1949.

The source of controversy on this particular occasion was a 1,200 year-old ink-and-paper parchment of calligraphy called ‘Requiem to my Nephew’, composed by Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing.

It tells the story of Yan’s nephew, a Tang loyalist, who was executed resisting the An Lushan rebellion (755-763). Known for his loyalty to the state and personal integrity, Yan completed the calligraphy at the age of 49. Part of its fame is derived from the many crossings-out, which reflects the raw emotions on display, according to scholars.

The anger at the loan was led by the Global Times, which published an article complaining that Taipei was endangering the calligraphy by sending it to Tokyo, where, it wrongly stated, people would be allowed to take photos of the treasure using a flash. The newspaper even labelled the Taipei National Museum’s actions as “treacherous” and accused the island’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, of “politicising” a work of art.

The implication here is that the cultural exchange might be perceived as a ‘state-to-state’ transaction, and hence indirectly bolster Taipei’s claims to self-government. These diplomatic nuances, of course, need to be seen in the context of Beijing applying greater pressure on Taipei to step back from claims of independent status. In a speech on January 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted that the island “must and will” be reunited with mainland China and he refused to rule out the use of force to achieve that goal (for more see WiC436).

The more belligerent tone from Beijing has been accompanied by a slew of administrative measures pressuring the Taiwanese. For instance, the latest Blue Book on the Cyber Rule of Law, which was published by a group of state-backed academic institutions, singled out 66 of the world’s top 500 companies as “failing” to label Taiwan as “part of China”, and warned them of the “legal consequences”. In a similar manner, the world’s airlines have been put on notice to change the way they designate Taiwanese cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung to make sure that they are identified as cities in China. More than 40 airlines have already acquiesced.

The calligraphy controversy plays to similar sensitivities, although some art experts in China have noted that Tokyo has a track record of treating Chinese antiquities with care and respect. Others pointed out that exchanges among top museums are commonplace and non-political. Indeed, as one curator told, the Shanghai Museum is currently running an exhibition featuring another Yan Zhenqing piece – borrowed from Tokyo.

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