By now, you have probably heard about the Cake Kerfuffle – and may have had a giggle about it. A short recap: earlier this month there was a reception in Fiji’s capital Suva hosted by Taiwan’s trade representative in the absence of official diplomatic relations. But a few envoys from the Chinese embassy decided to crash the party.

A Taiwan-themed cake. File photo: Wikicommons.

The reception was part of celebrations for October 10, which is a little more complicated than simply “Taiwan’s national holiday”. It commemorates the day when, in 1911, the Wuchang Uprising in today’s Wuhan set in motion the events that would lead to the establishment of the Republic of China – and the end of imperial dynastic rule.  

On October 1, 1949, though, after communist forces defeated the troops of the Nationalist Party, Mao Zedong proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China and the country’s official birthdate was shifted accordingly. Except for Taiwan: the Nationalist government moved to Taipei, pretended it was going to reconquer of all China, and went ahead in celebrating the Wuchang Uprising and the end of the imperial dynasty.

Today Taiwan still celebrates Double Ten, for lack of a better day – even if many of its residents may not find the date very significant.

The flag used in the Double Ten celebrations is the same as the one approved by Sun Yat-sen, which became the flag of the Nationalist Party once the Chinese red flag became the official one in the mainland. In the few countries that still recognise the Republic of China (Taiwan) in spite of Beijing’s protestations, Double Ten is the day for a diplomatic reception. 

Photo: Leahahaha via Flickr.

Now back to Fiji. The event was low-key, but the interloping Chinese diplomats started taking pictures of those present regardless. Then they saw The Cake: a square composition decorated with a white sun on a blue background in a corner, with everything else red. The offending Taiwanese flag that was supposed to have been consigned to history in 1949 – had it not been for the Nationalist Party carrying it to Taiwan.

What happened next is a little confused: China says the party crashers were attacked, while most reports say they were the first to become aggressive and a Taiwanese official was sent to hospital after the subsequent altercation.

The temptation to make fun of all this is strong: what is this nonsense, the world’s second economy is so lacking in confidence that a simple cake upsets it! Cake puns, anybody? But China, and Chinese diplomats, don’t get upset at a cake. China wants others to get upset at a cake with the republican flag on it. By raising the price to be paid for a low-key reception that hints at the existence of Taiwan as a legitimate entity, even a cake may be shunned next time round.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Those whose photos were taken by the uninvited Chinese delegation may feel less confident in joining the celebrations next year – and maybe so will everyone else, elsewhere. At a press briefing in Beijing on Monday – after the altercation had become public – the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the so-called diplomats, so-called national day and the fake flag and fake-flag carrying cake. All part of the standard reaction and language emanating from Beijing on these occasions, which could be funny if it weren’t so serious. 

The over-the-top reaction is not meant to garner witty comments on Twitter but intended for a domestic audience. To look at Weibo and see supportive and proud comments is of course important, even if we know that it is a very skewed perspective since dissenting voices are censored.

But this cake controversy is part of the country’s larger “wolf warrior diplomacy,” not a matter of a few ill-tempered diplomats. China has decided that nothing is too small – not a low-key celebration, not a slogan, not a cake – when it comes to making a loud point. It is affirmative anger, not a temper tantrum. And it carries benefits: there cannot be too much loyalty to the Party line, and a Chinese diplomat’s career is not hurt by going berserk over seemingly insignificant details such as the icing on a cake.

Remember Kong Linlin, the CGTN television reporter who slapped activist Enoch Lieu in Birmingham at a Conservative Party convention, at which Hong Kong’s shrinking freedoms and autonomy were being debated. Her prestige has grown and she is portrayed by state media (the only media most Chinese will see) as a hero, not as a violent thug.

Being vehemently, even aggressively seen as defending the honour of the motherland will win supporters in a country where there is no debate about the dangers and wrongheadedness of nationalism. By an odd coincidence, Birmingham was also the scene of an international cake decoration contest turned political, when a Sheung Wan baker submitted a protest-themed cake, a Chinese participant complained and the Hong Kong cake was disqualified as “offensive”.

Maybe the organisers feared another slapping incident, and played it safe? When the cake had to be withdrawn, Hong Kong didn’t make jokes about it – it understood that this was censorship, internationally accepted and imposed.

So “China gets upset about a cake” isn’t actually a laughing matter. It portrays very faithfully what is unacceptable for Beijing and reminds everyone that violence isn’t taboo when the point has to be made. And there is nothing funny about this. 

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Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.