Taiwan’s Mainstage Moment – Analysis


By Thomas J. Shattuck

In spring 2024, Taiwan took over the global mainstage, not because of the election and upcoming inauguration of President-elect Lai Ching-te, whose electoral victory in January demonstrated Taiwan’s democratic successes to the world. No, Taiwan has another international superstar and media darling now, thanks to Taiwanese-American Nymphia Wind’s recent victory in season 16 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Each week on Drag Race, contestants serve charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to win mini and maxi challenges, and eventually the crown.

Nymphia Wind’s victory has come at a time when military, economic, and political pressure from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) against Taiwan has increased ahead of Lai’s inauguration on May 20. But her victory on RuPaul’s mainstage has introduced Taiwan to new audiences around the globe. And she will continue to do so on her upcoming world tour. The more new, international audiences are exposed to Taiwan, the greater the ire from Beijing, which seeks to diminish Taiwan’s status and image globally in an effort to shape policy conversations through its “One China Principle.” It is a policy that holds countries around the world to abide by Beijing’s vision of cross-Strait relations: “There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China.”

It may be a stretch to say that Nymphia Wind’s Drag Race victory threatens the One China Principle, but her new elevated platform, and as a result, Taiwan’s, will paint Taiwan in a new light, one that is separate from China. Demonstrating Taiwan’s separateness from China is an unacceptable outcome for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials.

What does Nymphia Wind’s Drag Race victory mean for Taiwan? How can Taiwan capitalize on her victory? The simplest answer is to let Nymphia be Nymphia. She won the hearts of the judges on Drag Race to secure her victory, and her legions of fans will continue to follow her post-victory. Where she goes, so, too, will Taiwan. Her Taiwanese identity immediately elevated her victory from just winning a prestigious reality show to taking on added geopolitical relevance.

Upon winning her crown, Nymphia Wind exclaimed, “Taiwan, this is for you.” Throughout the season, she would regularly refer to Taiwan as a “country” and showcased Taiwanese symbols and images like boba teaand the magpie. Wind “came here to represent [her] country” and wanted to do so through cultural symbols, not political ones. She did not want to represent Taiwan “by putting a flag on [her] dress.” Such outfits would not necessarily be a major issue for another contestant, but the Taiwanese-ness of Wind’s choices help to portray it as a normal country, and not “the most dangerous place on earth” as a now-infamous 2021 Economist headline once claimed. Taiwan’s culture and society often get overshadowed by its unique place in geopolitics, so having a Taiwanese person amplify cultural symbols treats Taiwan like a normal place.

As Wind continues to speak about her Drag Race victory and what being Taiwanese means to her, Taiwan can continue to take pride in being the only Asian country to have legalized same-sex marriage, which was legalized in 2019 after a 2017 Constitution Court ruling. Taiwan also hosts Asia’s largest Pride march, which President-elect (then-Candidate) Lai attended in October 2023, and hosted 200,000 participants in 2019. Taiwan’s record is in stark contrast to how China treats LGBTQ+ people, with Shanghai Pride going on hiatus since 2020 amid a general crackdown on LGBTQ+ representation and rights. In March 2023, the Beijing LGBT Center closed down, too.

Throughout her time on Drag Race, Nymphia Wind grew to become a symbol of national pride. People across Taiwan would gather in bars and temples to watch Drag Race this season. Wind even performed at a temple in Taipei, an unconventional location for a drag show. Her victory sparked public support from leaders in Taiwan, which culminated in celebratory and congratulatory messages from President Tsai Ing-wen, who said, “Taiwan thanks you for living fearlessly,” and President-elect Lai Ching-te, who thanked her “for showing our culture in your performances so fearlessly and beautifully.” Even Taiwan’s embassy at the Vatican mirrored Lai’s congratulatory message. Other leading politicians and parties, namely the Kuomintang and Taiwan People’s Party, were not as vocal or public in their support after her victory.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Stephanie Yang, Wind spoke plainly about her views on Taiwan. “Taiwan to me is just a country. . . . If people think otherwise or don’t know that Taiwan is a country, then it really is on their educational level. There’s only so much you can do, but you can always try to improve awareness of the situation.” A point that demonstrates why Nymphia Wind’s victory and her symbolism for Taiwanese identity are important. After all, whenever something Taiwanese makes headlines outside of the realm of foreign policy and geopolitics, it eventually moves into that space. According to Yang, Paramount would only allow her to interview Wind “if the reporter agreed not to ask her about geopolitics”—conditions which Yang did not agree to and Paramount backed down allowing the interview to occur. Those conditions were likely made out of fear of reprisals against the media company by Beijing.

Beijing has a history of pressuring countries, organizations, and companies into diminishing Taiwan’s status. From dropdown menus on websites labeling Taiwan as a part of China, maps including Taiwan as a formal part of the PRC, to organizations removing Taiwanese participants from international conferences, and Chinese Communist Party officials stalking Taiwan’s vice president-elect abroad, Beijing regularly uses its political and economic heft to shape the narrative and characterization of Taiwan. Beijing’s squeezing of Taiwan’s status increased significantly after the election of now-outgoing President Tsai in 2016 due to her refusal to accept the so-called 1992 Consensus. And with her vice president set to take over her position on May 20, 2024, cross-Strait relations will only further diminish.

Within this context, it makes sense why Paramount would be reluctant to have an interview cover such a “sensitive” topic of Taiwan and geopolitics. When President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., of the Philippines publicly congratulated President-elect Lai on his electoral victory in January 2024, Beijing warned him “not to play with fire.” Whenever Taiwan or a Taiwanese person attempts to elevate the country or expand its international presence or status, Beijing responds in kind because it considers Taiwan one of its “core interests” and an internal, domestic issue. This track record of reducing Taiwan’s international maneuvering space makes Nymphia Wind’s victory an interesting case study to watch how Beijing eventually responds to this positive press for Taiwan. After all, many Drag Race winners and participants go on to star in movies and on Broadway. Wind’s victory is not the end of her journey, and Yang’s interview will not be the only time that someone asks about Taiwan.

Despite that attempted gag order, Nymphia Wind summed up Taiwan’s conundrum quite well: “Taiwan is a small country and it doesn’t have a lot of power per se. . . . Which is kind of sad, but this is the situation. You’ve gotta play with the cards you’re dealt, cleverly.” With her victory, she is now a part of Taiwan’s cards, and her ability to reach new audiences in her unique way give Taiwan a new force of nature. Throughout season 16 of Drag Race, she spoke her mind, which can be considered a threat when such comments drift into geopolitics and run the risk of Beijing’s ire—as exemplified by the hesitance of Paramount to let Nymphia address the biggest issues facing Taiwan.

Nymphia Wind will continue to shine a special light on Taiwan and its geopolitical plight. Her next big moment—representing Taiwan at events during the Paris Olympics—will likely be more scripted than she has been used to; however, she will still showcase Taiwanese culture to attendees (even though it will be under the confusing name of “Chinese Taipei”). That is another reason why Wind’s presence and consistent use of the word “Taiwan” on television was so unique: in major international contexts, Taiwan must be referred to as “Chinese Taipei,” “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu,” “Taiwan, Province of China,” and even “Other non-specified areas.” So, when Wind proclaimed, “Taiwan, this is for you,” it carried extra meaning.

It is these opportunities—appearing on a widely watched TV show, touring the world, performing at the Olympics, saying the word “Taiwan”—that allow for Nymphia Wind to showcase Taiwanese culture in a seemingly non-political way. And given Beijing’s record on LGBTQ+ rights, it is unlikely that fans of Nymphia Wind will fear Beijing’s ire. RuPaul did not repress Nymphia Wind’s ability to represent her country on Drag Race. Political leaders and private companies should mirror that behavior when approaching Taiwan: Let Taiwan be Taiwan.

  • About the author: Thomas J. Shattuck, a non-resident Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), is the Global Order Program Manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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