That's Yoko Ono along with Taiwanese rock band Mayday, which seems to have given the wrong signal to mainland China. Photographer: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images
That's Yoko Ono along with Taiwanese rock band Mayday, which seems to have given the wrong signal to mainland China. Photographer: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

Is Taiwan's equivalent of the Beatles opposed to reunification with mainland China? That's the question of the moment for young Chinese contemplating the loyalties of Mayday, the most popular rock band in both Taiwan and China during the past decade. Self-fashioned superstars, Mayday, which had previously avoided politics, is a surprise public supporter of a student occupation of Taiwan’s legislature, now entering its fifth day.

The immediate cause of the messy occupation is opposition to a trade agreement with China, but the underlying issue is the future of Taiwan’s democracy, and by extension, its independence from China, which views the island as a renegade province.

This is an odd position for Taiwanese rockers to find themselves in. For two decades Taiwanese pop stars have flourished in China by making contemporary, western-influenced pop music that nonetheless remains distinctly Chinese, and is entirely void of politics. Indeed, if there’s one way to lose access to Chinese audiences, it’s to be perceived as supporting Taiwanese independence. The Taiwanese artist A-Mei learned this the hard way in the early 2000s, when she was prevented from performing in China for a year after singing the national anthem at the inauguration for pro-independence President Chen Shui-bian.

The events that set off the student occupation of the legislature -- and Mayday’s moment of politicization -- date to June 2013, when Taiwan’s government signed the Cross-Straits Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), a treaty that would allow greater and deeper Chinese investment in Taiwan’s services sector. At the time, President Ma Ying-jeao and his ruling KMT party promised a public, clause-by-clause review of the agreement before final passage, in order to hear and assuage concerns raised by interested industries and a Taiwanese public wary of greater Chinese influence on the island. That review never happened, and on March 17 the KMT ruled that the trade agreement would be put to a vote on March 21.

The next night, March 18, several hundred protesters -- mostly students -- scaled the legislature’s fences and occupied the chambers. Meanwhile, outside the legislature, 12,000 supporters of the occupiers gathered, blocking police. It wasn’t the most orderly occupation, but its grievances shouldn’t be underestimated. J. Michael Cole, writing for the Diplomat, explained on Thursday:

The protests are the result of several months of mounting anger at a government that is perceived to have become less accountable in recent years, perhaps as a result of mounting pressure from China. Beijing hopes to see such deals adopted as soon as possible so that the governments can move on to greater things, such as talks on a ‘peace agreement.’

Enter Mayday, or, more precisely, Mayday’s bassist, who owns a coffee shop not far from the legislature. In an act of solidarity with the students he announced that he would close the shop during the occupation. His hand-written sign announcing the closure was photographed and circulated on websites and social media. It read:

We’re sorry but we won't sacrifice the future of Taiwan to earn a little money. We’ve decided to close our cafe temporarily. There are plenty of good coffee shops nearby. We hope that you’ll be able to walk a little longer in the direction of the legislature after drinking a cup of coffee. Please join us in caring for Taiwan. Thank you.

This is tame stuff, but for the Chinese and Taiwanese who read the note, there was no mistaking its meaning: Mayday opposes closer relations between Taiwan and China. For Taiwanese, this was something to celebrate; for Chinese, something to condemn.

On Thursday, Ashin, the group’s lead singer and most active social-media user (17.9 million followers on Sina Weibo, 2.7 million likes on Facebook), posted a long, strange message that opened: “Thanks to those people who trust us, that's the most precious thing.” Almost immediately, the comment sections was flooded, with the Sina Weibo discussion running 106,000 comments long as of Friday night. The comments on Facebook, which is blocked in China, tended to be sympathetic to Mayday. On Sina Weibo, most of the comments, especially from the China side, were laced with outrage. “You don’t have to work so hard knocking out a bunch of words,” wrote one. “Just write one sentence: I am Chinese.”

Ashin isn’t going to do that, if only because it risks alienating his Taiwanese fans. But in the midst of the Sina Weibo comment thread he did jump in to clear up a few things. “We have never opposed the Cross-Straits Services Trade Agreement,” he told one of his interrogators. Rather, he and Mayday have always been interested in one thing, only: “mutual understanding and friendly exchanges” between the two sides.

It’s a nice bit of damage control, but the fury generated (or resuscitated) by the band’s poorly conceived toe dip into cross-Straits politics is a harsh reminder of just how little understanding there is between the two sides. More ominous, yet, that misunderstanding and hate seems to have been passed down to a new generation of rock 'n' roll fans.