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Will China Ban Katy Perry?

On April 28, American pop singer Katy Perry gave her first-ever concert in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, the self-governing island which mainland China considers to be its sovereign territory. Tense relations between Taiwan and mainland China mean that celebrities visiting Taiwan must often perform a balancing act—pleasing the island’s crowds while not offending mainland sensibilities.

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China, We Fear You

On March 18, thousands of students began a sit-in of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan in the capital, Taipei, a historic first that has paralyzed the island’s lawmaking body. Students have amassed to protest an attempt by the Kuomintang, the island’s...

But Perry seemed to eschew such delicacy. According to Apple Daily Taiwan, a Hong Kong-based outlet influential in Taiwan, Perry grabbed a Taiwanese flag from a fan in the audience and wore it draped around her shoulders like a cape while performing the song “Unconditionally.” And she did so while wearing a dress decked out with sunflowers—which happen to be the symbol of anti-mainland student protests that led to the occupation of Taiwan’s legislature for 24 days in March 2014. While the flag was a clear nod to Taiwan, the reference to the Sunflower Movement may not have been intentional; the sunflower dress was incorporated into Perry’s tour outfits as early as April 20, and she has been posing with sunflowers since releasing her “Prism” album in October 2013.

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Taiwanese took to Twitter and Facebook to express their thanks for what they perceived as Perry’s support for Taiwan; some Taiwanese news outlets have even dubbed her the “Sunflower Goddess.”

Sam Yeh—AFP/Getty Images
A Taiwanese resident reads a newspaper showing singer Katy Perry wearing Taiwan’s national flag in a concert in Taipei.

But mainland fans are worried that Perry may be banned from returning to mainland China. She’s quite popular there; mainland fans have even given her a Chinese nickname, “Fruit Sister,” due to her penchant for flamboyant, fruit-themed costumes. In a popular comment, one user on popular mainland social platform Weibo even urged others not to post or repost photos from the Taipei concert, warning, “Otherwise, not only may she have no further opportunity to return, it might even influence the ability of other American and European artists to come to China.” Others, perhaps nervous that direct mention of the incident would alert censors on China’s highly controlled web, merely hinted at their dismay. “Katy Perry was forced to do something really tragic,” wrote one user on April 28. And a number of commenters seemed doubtful that Perry had really intended to make a political statement, blaming her audience instead. It’s already spurred censorship in Chinese cyberspace, with some images of Perry in her sunflower dress and flag cape hastily removed.

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Beijing has previously prevented performers who have expressed support for sensitive political issues from entering mainland borders. Taiwanese singer A-mei was banned from performing in China after she sang the national anthem at the inauguration of then-Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian. American singer Bob Dylan was also denied entry to mainland China in 2010 after Icelandic Bjork shouted “Tibet, Tibet” during her 2008 concert in Shanghai. Foreign performers seem to have gotten the message. After American sax legend Kenny G angered mainlanders and even drew a rebuke from a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson after posting a selfie taken at a Hong Kong pro-democracy protest site, the musician quickly insisted on his neutrality, tweeting, “I am not supporting the protesters.”

Grace Tsoi contributed research.