A new Netflix show about Taiwanese campaign staffers has become an unlikely hit among members of China’s middle class. But it has also raised 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 those taking part – 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 policies.
For Chinese fans, Wave Makers has been eye-opening. YouTuber Yao Zhang, who posts videos about contemporary culture and politics for her 87,000 subscribers, has followed the reaction to the mini-series on Chinese social media sites.
She described the response to the show on platforms such as Weibo as a mix of interest, sadness, and self-reflection.
“From my perspective, [Chinese viewers] know such things exist as elections or [the] free world or democracy, but because this show is in Chinese and also in Taiwanese, it feels real,” Zhang told Voice of America.
“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,” she added.
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 Wave Makers 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,” one 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,” another user said.
“It’s as if they are two separate worlds.”
YouTuber Zhang suspects many of the show’s small but dedicated fans are educated, wealthy women based on context clues in their posts.
Issues such as the sexual harassment plotline in Wave Makers showing a high-ranking party member being fired for his actions resonate with them.
Until recently, discussing sexual harassment was largely taboo in China. Even now, the crime is still difficult to punish. The 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 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 last year.
While much of the protest movement was against harsh “zero-Covid restrictions in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, a small 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 demonstrators were detained, 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.
Beijing has banned individual travel to the island democracy since 2019. A year later, China suspended new student enrolment at Taiwanese universities, although existing undergraduates 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:
Before I came to Taiwan, I never thought that everyone has a vote and can really choose their preferred candidate.
At home [in China], 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 policies in tackling sexual harassment and the support system that is there to help.
“Many people on Weibo read about human rights, but they have never been to Taiwan and some people don’t know much about it,” the vlogger said.
“Then they found out after watching Wave Makers what Taiwan’s daily life is like. It turns out that there are elections over there.”
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.