A cross-straits music festival on the campus of Taiwan's most prestigious university has sparked fears that the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, which claims sovereignty over the democratic island but which has never ruled it, may be on the rise.
The "Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival" was halted by authorities at National Taiwan University after mass protests by students on Sunday prompted scuffles between pro-independence and pro-Beijing groups.
Three students were injured by a member of the pro-Beijing Patriot Association wielding a stick, and police said they had taken in a 61-year-old man surnamed Hu for questioning.
Protesters accused China's Communist Party of using the concert, which had been jointly planned by Taiwan's cultural affairs department and the mainland Chinese TV show Sing! China, as part of its United Front propaganda strategy used by Beijing to advance its interests overseas.
"National Taiwan University belongs to its students, and anyone trying to trample on its dignity will be punished," a student protest leader told journalists.
Scuffles broke out after Taiwan protesters who had been denied entry to the festival tried to storm the entrance, waving the flag of a "Republic of Taiwan," which doesn't exist as a political entity.
The festival was abruptly terminated by the organizers, citing safety concerns, after students succeeded in storming the venue, prompting accusations that the university had caved in to China's "United Front" policies in return for huge sums from Sing! China to rent its athletics field.
Activism 'hit a nerve'
"This was a mainland Chinese United Front event," one student protester who declined to be named told local media. "We will have no truck with such events here, so we wanted to make sure it came to a halt."
Mainland Chinese dissident Gong Yujian, who is currently living in Taiwan, said pro-Beijing activism on the island had "hit a nerve" with the island's young people, many of whom don't identify as Chinese, but as Taiwanese.
"I think you could say that the Chinese Communist Party's United Front activities have touched a nerve with young Taiwanese," Gong said, adding that the public apology of a Taiwan popstar with a huge mainland Chinese fan base for displaying the island's flag, and the recent subversion trial of Taiwan democracy activist Lee Ming-cheh, had had a huge impact on the younger generation.
"Events in Hong Kong [where leaders of the 2014 democracy movement were recently jailed] have also had a very big impact on them," he said. "All of these incidents are pushing young people in Taiwan further and further away from mainland China."
A National Taiwan University history student surnamed Chang told journalists he had seen his classmates set upon by six or seven members of a pro-Beijing political group, and accused the authorities of doing nothing to stop them.
"This incident wasn't just something that happened on campus. I must have called the police more than a dozen times over the course of 40 minutes, and yet they didn't show up until two minutes after the suspects had left the scene," Chang said.
University vice-chancellor Teiwei Kuo appeared to condemn the attacks on the student protesters.
"We shouldn't be seeing violent incidents of this sort in a place of learning, and there should be a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of violence," Kuo told reporters. "There are, however, certain areas for investigation, and we the university will now go through a process of investigating the incident."
Self-rule in Taiwan
China's Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
But while the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island, Beijing regards it as part of Chinese territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
China's United Front operation comprises a huge and shadowy network that delivers Communist Party propaganda overseas in collaboration with government agencies, including embassies and consulates, according to a recent analysis on the International Policy Digest website.
The failure to register a connection with the Chinese government would likely render many United Front activities illegal under U.S. laws governing foreign agents, it said.
But it said such laws are rarely enforced in practice, citing "powerful multinational business interests" keen not to derail Chinese business ties.
The quasi-governmental China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPNR), the China Overseas Exchange Association (COEA), and the China Overseas Friendship Association (COFA) all carry out United Front work overseas under the leadership of Communist Party officials, the article said.
Reported by Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie