Puns for Punches: Political Satire Striking a Nerve in Taiwan

How best to stand up to the authoritarian bully next door? For many young Taiwanese, the answer seems to be humor. Political satire, including spoof news YouTube channel EyeCTV, is rapidly gaining traction online. Their preferred targets: China and Taiwan’s uncertain international status.

“Reporting from the Free Taiwan Area on the red bandits’ policies affecting our compatriots in the Mainland Area” – what reads like Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) propaganda from the Cold War is actually the formula for a successful Taiwanese YouTube show. The channel is called EyeCTV, or “Central Eyeball Television” (眼球中央電視台). Its most-viewed format is a mock news broadcast, in which hosts Shi Wang-mo and Yan Rou-ya present international and domestic news through the lens of a fictitious Republic of China still fixated on “retaking the mainland.”

The unlikely premise attracts between 300,000 and several million views per episode, making the professionally produced satirical news show, which runs for 10 to 15 minutes twice a week, the most popular among the five regular show formats on EyeCTV’s channel.

Another fan favorite is the monthly Ru Hua Press Conference (辱華記者會, literally “Disgracing China press conference”). In this series, the presenter poses as a spokesperson from the People’s Republic of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, answering reporters’ questions from a podium emblazoned with the words “Ministry of Winnie Affairs.” In the EyeCTV universe, Xi Jinping is referred to exclusively as Winnie Xi, an allusion to his resemblance to Winnie the Pooh – one of the many internet memes that infuriate Chinese censors and have become EyeCTV staples.

In the satirical Ru Hua Press Conference, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Winnie Affairs answers reporters’ questions. Photo: YouTube, EyeCTV

In the March edition of the mock press conference, a pretend journalist asks the speaker in a heavy Cantonese accent: “Many public hospitals [in Hong Kong] have reached their capacity. Patients can’t access immediate treatment. Nursing staff reports that every day patients are dying, and bodies need to be dealt with. Is there a problem with the Hong Kong authorities’ pandemic prevention? Speaker, please explain.” The would-be Foreign Ministry spokesperson responds: “First, let me ask everyone to stop referring to COVID-positive Hongkongers as ‘patients.’ As we all know, words have power. If we keep calling them sick, how are they going to get better?”

Mocking Chinese government doublespeak and wolf-warrior fragility are two staples of EyeCTV’s comedy. Other recurring targets include influencers and celebrities from Taiwan who pander to China’s patriotic audiences on Weibo and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. For example, the show regularly pokes fun at one influencer calling herself the “Taiwanese Cousin” (台灣表妹, Taiwan Biaomei). While global media coverage focused on food shortages in Shanghai, Taiwan Biaomei lamented in an upload to Douyin that she had to use cash instead of electronic payments in Taiwan and was suffering from rising egg prices on the island. EyeCTV captioned the segment about her video “Enduring a heavy burden.”

The spoof news reports also highlight online evidence of mismanagement in China, such as a video of an overworked PCR-test taker reusing the same cotton swab to test multiple people. Such routine absurdity in Chinese governance and political discourse naturally lends itself to ridicule. Mirroring China’s insistence that Taiwan compete as Chinese Taipei at international sporting competitions, during the Tokyo Olympics EyeCTV counted medals won by Taiwanese athletes as well as those of Hong Kong, Mongolia, and mainland China in the Republic of China’s total. For good measure, it also added those of the Russian athletes, since they competed under the initials ROC. Needless to say, according to EyeCTV, the Republic of China topped the world rankings with a whopping total of 181 Olympic victories.

According to EyeCTV’s reporting, Taiwan won 181 medals at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: YouTube, EyeCTV

EyeCTV’s unapologetic satire is proving to be a formula for success. With 1.15 million subscribers and an amassed view growth of 6.67 million in 30 days, marketing consultant noxinfluencer.com in its mid-May rating credited the channel with a monetization capability of between US$6,700-12,700 per month. In addition to the revenue it receives through YouTube, EyeCTV cashes in on ad collaborations, merchandising, and cultural funding, making it one of Taiwan’s most lucrative YouTube channels.

EyeCTV’s creators are not the only ones benefiting from a growing enthusiasm for political comedy among Taiwan viewers. Humorous takes on local and international politics are what made host and comedian Brian Tseng a household name across the island. Tseng introduced the American late-night talk show format to Taiwan with the premiere of his Night Night Show in 2018. The YouTube show, which was produced by entertainment company STR Network and recorded in front of a live audience, ran for three seasons and gained between 500,000 and 13 million views per episode.

Brian Tseng’s Night Night Show, which ran from 2018 to 2020, introduced the American late-night talk show format to Taiwan audiences. Photo: YouTube, STR Network

“Taiwan’s democratization has made politics consumable,” says Yin C. Chuang, associate professor at the Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). The sociology scholar, who formerly worked as a TV anchor, describes EyeCTV and other online comedy formats as a “pleasurable way to consume politics” in Taiwan’s post-democratization entertainment landscape.

The success of satirical content is not owed solely to its originality – another factor is the lack of clever political commentary in Taiwan’s conventional media landscape. Chuang maintains that sensitive topics such as Chinese intimidation, Taiwan’s difficult international standing, or its authoritarian past do receive coverage on Taiwanese TV, but in a different manner. “During my time as a news anchor, I didn’t witness any censorship of such topics,” he says. “But there is no place for critical self-reflection on the national narrative in Taiwan’s mainstream media.”

Most TV stations align their messaging with one of Taiwan’s two major political camps. Furthermore, the excess supply and low production value of Taiwanese TV programs make conventional media less appealing to savvy young audiences. But it is not just young people that the political satire is engaging, says Chuang. She notes that “EyeCTV transforms the contradiction inherent in daily practices in Taiwan into comedy,” making it relatable to Taiwanese people of all generations. The contradiction she refers to is the divide between Taiwan’s lived experience as a sovereign nation and its undefined status in international law.

EyeCTV plays with this absurdity by taking the constitution of the Republic of China, written in 1946 by the KMT regime in Nanjing, China, literally. On paper, the constitution underpins Taiwan’s governance to this day; however, this foundational document claims as territory the Chinese Mainland and Mongolia. The claims may seem absurd to some now, but they are unlikely to be amended in the foreseeable future as China could interpret any changes to Taiwan’s legal status as a formal declaration of independence and launch an attack under its Anti-Secession Law. Therefore, EyeCTV continues to faithfully report on events in the “occupied Mainland Area,” calling it Taiwan’s “biggest outlying island.”

A growing market

Audiences seem to get similar comic relief from YouTubers Potter Wang and Fun TV. In their vlog-style commentaries, the presenters dissect videos and comments circulated by hyper-nationalist Chinese netizens, known as “Little Pinks” (小粉紅) or the “50-Cent Army” (五毛黨). This type of content has earned the entertainers 924,000 and 544,000 subscribers, respectively. Another satirical hit was the China-critical song “Fragile” by Malaysian-Taiwanese singer Namewee and Australian-Taiwanese popstar Kimberly Chen. The lyrics mock Chinese censorship and hypersensitivity to criticism without mentioning China by name. It clearly struck a nerve with viewers: The Chinese-language song with English and Malaysian subtitles has amassed over 45 million views since its publication on YouTube in October 2021.

Content exposing the hypocrisy of China’s political rhetoric not only resonates with Taiwanese audiences but also with Chinese-speaking diasporas in Asia and around the world, says podcast host Kylie Wang. Together with co-host Ken, she has started the podcast channel Bailingguo News (百靈果News). The name is a play on “bilingual” and refers to their casual use of English in Mandarin segments. The channel, which dubs itself the “freest international news podcast in the Chinese-speaking world,” rose to fame during the pandemic and currently holds sixth place in the Apple podcast charts for Taiwan.

“We want to let Taiwanese people know that our freedom of speech is something to be proud of,” Wang said during the February 2022 premiere of Bailinguo’s new YouTube series “Tough Bobas.” “We shouldn’t be self-censoring all the time.” Why Tough Bobas? Because, explains her co-host, “You can chew us, but you can’t swallow us.”

Tough Bobas is a series of short English-language sketches that hail Taiwan’s fortitude in the face of Chinese intimidation while mocking the tacit complacency of other nations. In the first episode, coveted bachelor “America” swears his love to sweet, trusting “Taiwan,” played by singer Kimberly Chen, only to be seduced by a money-waving, brutish “China” in an ill-fitting red dress. Kylie and Ken’s somewhat crude first attempt at reaching international audiences may still require some refinement. Still, it conveys their message, which co-creator Ken sums up as: “100%, we want to give Taiwanese people the courage to say to China: ‘Come and bite us!’”

“I don’t find it offensive,” says Bernd Chen, who stars in Tough Bobas as an LGBT+ Chinese Communist Party censor enforcing China’s recent ban on effeminate men in media. “I think it’s funny. Maybe our parents’ generation would say it’s not proper,” adds the 35-year-old.

Podcast hosts Ken (right) and Kylie Wang (left) with Tough Bobas co-stars. Photo: Courtesy of Bernd Chen

Chen and his friends agree at the Tough Boba premiere that comedy has made politics more accessible to them. Ding Ding, 30, admits that “audiences under 30 just don’t watch TV news.” Another friend, Chun Fu, says that too often, politics is ignored in Taiwanese social interactions. “During New Year celebrations, some families will say ‘let’s not discuss politics at the dinner table,’” he says. “They might all have different opinions that they are used to keeping to themselves. A lighter and livelier take on politics is a good thing.”

It encapsulates the sentiment of a generation. Taiwan’s young adults grew up viewing democracy and critical expression as a birthright while witnessing the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan and the demise of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. This generation’s taste for satirical takes on domestic and international politics is a testament to the growing number of people who are fed up with the status quo of heavily bipartisan political discourse and media representation.

Another selling point of shows like EyeCTV seems to be young audiences’ relative unfamiliarity with China’s domestic affairs. When asked about the inspiration for the show, EyeCTV co-creator Chen Tzu-chien, also known as mock news host Shi Wang-mo, recounts his experience during a study trip to China. In 2015, he participated in a low-cost tour program for Taiwanese students. The heavily subsidized, pre-arranged itinerary was meant to present China in its best light – affluent, elegant, and futuristic.

Breakout star and creator of EyeCTV, Chen Tzu-chien, with series regular Youzi the dog. Photo: Facebook, Shi Wang-mo

But whenever Chen turned on the TV in his hotel room, he was stunned by the state news broadcasters’ monotone, robotic delivery of blatantly propagandist news stories. A trained newsreader himself, Chen began mimicking their style as a joke among friends. It also proved successful among a wider audience when he launched his YouTube channel a few months later. Since then, EyeCTV has evolved into the professional entertainment operation it is today. It employs a dozen writers, editors, and creators who ensure a constant stream of high-quality comedy content for the channel.

Many young consumers, according to their own testimony, rely heavily on social media for information and would not be exposed to daily news if not for entertainment formats such as EyeCTV. Watching the satirical news broadcasts enables young viewers to absorb information about Chinese and international politics. Bailingguo News host Wang says that EyeCTV introduced the issue of Taiwan’s outdated constitution to her for the first time. The show has taught her more about Taiwan’s history and international standing.

NTU’s Chuang cautions, however, that such comedy formats might offer a way of coping with Chinese aggression that relies heavily on Taiwanese patriotism. She feels that with growing nationalist sentiment on both sides, this new type of media is not necessarily contributing to a constructive, peaceful solution to the current cross-Strait political impasse. Regardless, satire appears to be here to stay, providing much needed relief for those overwhelmed by the tragicomedy of Taiwan’s politics.