A new Netflix drama about Taiwanese campaign staffers has become an unlikely hit among members of China’s middle class, raising troubling questions for its fans about the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese society.
Released in April, the eight-episode “Wave Makers” follows the drama of a fictional yearlong presidential campaign and how it impacts the personal lives of campaign employees, both at the top and bottom of the campaign ladder.
The show touches on topics like the death penalty and same sex marriage in Taiwan as well as more complex themes like aging out of political idealism and sexual harassment in the workplace. Key plot points are set against the hustle and bustle of a democratic election, from campaign rallies to heated meetings discussing campaign policies.
For Chinese fans of the show, “Wave Makers” has been eye opening — the actions unfold in a similar language and culture as their own, says Chinese YouTuber Yao Zhang who posts from Canada videos about contemporary culture and politics for her 87,000 subscribers.
Zhang has closely followed the response to “Wave Makers” on Chinese social media sites like Weibo, where she said the show has been met with a mix of interest, sadness, and self-reflection.
“From my perspective, [Chinese viewers] know such things exist as election or free world or democracy, but because this show is in Chinese and also in Taiwanese, it feels real,” she told VOA. “We share the same blood and that makes it feel really powerful seeing an election in action, like democracy in action, and that kind of thing. It touches them a lot.”
Comments on Weibo have included users describing how the show makes them feel like they “live in a cage” or they are watching “a whole different world” even though much of the show is written in Mandarin Chinese.
“When I see the candidates sometimes, I feel a chill. These characters all speak in Chinese, there is not a single word I don’t understand. I even vaguely remember an explanation or a definition, but I have never seen it,” another Weibo user posted.
“Taiwanese dramas are so good. They are really way ahead of us. We speak the same language [Chinese], but gender equality, same sex marriage, environmental protection, abolition of the death penalty, these issues have never appeared in the conversations of our young people. It’s as if they are two separate worlds,” said another.
Zhang said she suspects many of “Wave Makers” small but dedicated fan base are educated, wealthy women based on context clues in their posts and the resonance of the show’s sexual harassment plotline showing a high-ranking party member being fired for his actions.
Until recently, discussion of sexual harassment was largely taboo in China, but the crime is still difficult to punish. China’s initial vocal #MeToo movement was largely crushed by authorities, but it did usher in some changes.
Women in China are also largely locked out of national politics, unlike Taiwan. In “Wave Makers,” many of the show’s main characters are female and the fictional female presidential candidate closely resembles Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
For others, the show may have resonance because it was released just six months after China’s “white paper revolution” swept the country in late November and early December 2022, said Yang.
While much of the protest movement was against harsh “COVID Zero” restrictions, in urban areas like Shanghai and Beijing a small but vocal number of protesters broadened their criticism to include the Communist Party and China’s wider political system.
After the protests ended, some of the most vocal participants were detained by authorities in the early months of 2023, much like a similar crackdown on the #MeToo movement in 2021.
Seeing the differences between Taiwan and China in person is increasingly difficult for Chinese citizens without work or family ties in Taiwan due to ongoing travel restrictions.
China has banned individual travel to Taiwan since 2019 and in 2020 banned new student enrolment at Taiwanese universities, although enrolled students were allowed to finish their degrees. The Taiwanese government also imposed restrictions on Chinese tour groups at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to lift them.
Many lose out on experiences like one Chinese vlogger who has been following “Wave Makers” from abroad and asked to remain anonymous because they want to return to China.
“Before I came to Taiwan, I never thought that everyone has a vote and can really vote, and really choose their preferred candidate,” they said. “At home, ordinary people actually have no access to politics. Here candidates will campaign in the streets and alleys, and chat with voters in person to promote themselves. I think this also shocked me because I have never seen officials in China be so approachable.”
The vlogger also admired Taiwan’s harsher policies against problems like sexual harassment and the “many channels” that can help you if you have a problem.
TV shows and films are one way to keep up ties, they said, and gain some understanding of Taiwan.
“Many people on Weibo read about human rights, but they have never been to Taiwan and some people don’t know much about Taiwan,” they said. “Then they found out after watching “Wave Makers” what Taiwan daily life is like. It turns out that there are elections over there.”