Taiwanese K-pop singer Chou Tzu-yu mired in flag row

The Taiwan flag flies on a pole in the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall square in Taipei, Taiwan. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - Some seemingly innocent flag-waving by a teenage Taiwanese K-pop singer based in South Korea has landed her in political and commercial trouble, and forced her agency to suspend her activities in China.

The controversy arose after Chou Tzu-yu, 16, a singer with the nine-member, all-girl band Twice, brandished a Taiwanese flag during a recent online broadcast.

The online community in China reacted angrily, with suggestions that Chou was pushing a pro-Taiwan independence agenda.

Taiwan has ruled itself since a split with the Chinese mainland in 1949 after a civil war, but has never formally declared independence.

Beijing sees it as a renegade province awaiting reunification, however, and the issue of relations with China is expected to be a key issue in presidential polls this weekend.

According to Taiwanese media reports, China's Anhui TV station cancelled a scheduled Chinese New Year concert by Twice, while Chou was also pulled from endorsing Chinese smartphone vendor Huawei in the South Korean market.

Chou's agency, JYP Entertainment, responded by suspending the singer's activities in China and issuing a series of statements to clarify her stance.

"Chou was born in Taiwan and her relations with Taiwan are unbreakable," said the latest statement issued on Thursday.

"However, not all Taiwanese are pro-independence activists. Tzu-yu has never made any remarks in support of Taiwan independence and online rumours that she supports Taiwan independence are groundless.

"She understands the one China principle and respects it," it said.

Twice is a multinational group which also boasts three members from Japan.

The broadcast clip that caused all the trouble showed Chou and the three Japanese girls facing the camera, with each waving the South Korean flag in one hand and their own flag in the other.

The controversy erupted with Taiwan just days away from a presidential election, at which voters are expected to turn their backs on eight years of rapprochement with China under the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

The two main rival candidates have both voiced support for Chou, saying she was simply displaying her pride in the national flag.

"This is the right of all citizens and it should not be suppressed and should be supported by all," said front runner Tsai Ing-wen of the traditionally pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

It's not the first time the Taiwan flag has put an entertainer in the spotlight.

Last year, US singer-songwriter Katy Perry caused a stir in both Taiwan and China when she appeared on stage draped in a Taiwanese flag at a concert in Taipei, while donning a glittering gold dress adorned with sunflowers - the symbol of anti-China student protests in Taiwan in 2014.

In 2013, Taiwanese singer Deserts Chang was forced to cancel a performance in China amid controversy about her display of a Taiwanese flag at a concert in Britain.

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