Elections in Taiwan set the bar for China

CMP Staff
Editorial
Ying Chan
Ying Chan
Posted on 2012-01-17

Last Saturday, Taiwan held its fifth direct election for president. The event was an important one for Taiwan and mainland China not just because the outcome, the victory of incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou, was the one Beijing favored. This time, the election process itself was followed closely by mainland Chinese. And in that sense, the election was an important milestone for China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The authorities in Beijing have always regarded democratic elections in Taiwan as a highly sensitive issue, and this year was no different. According to a friend who works for a traditional media outlet in mainland China, the Central Propaganda Department sent out an order on Taiwan elections to all media well in advance, saying that they must “hold to [propaganda] discipline, using only official releases from Xinhua News Agency.”

As could only be expected, newspapers in mainland China did stick to Xinhua coverage over the weekend, not just Party papers like the People’s Daily but also commercial newspapers like Southern Metropolitan Daily, the Oriental Morning Post and The Beijing News.

Xinhua coverage referred to incumbent Ma Ying-jeou not as the “president” but as “the leader of the region of Taiwan” (台湾地区领导人). Nevertheless, newspapers did strive to distinguish themselves in terms of treatment, layout and headlines. Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily devoted nearly its entire front page to a photograph of Ma as he made his victory speech. The bold headline read simply: “Ma * Victory.” Strong and concise, this was a statement drawing power from what was left unsaid.

But coverage of Taiwan’s presidential elections didn’t stop there. This, after all, is the age of the internet.

Four years ago, a limited audience of Chinese who could access coverage on Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV could follow the presidential elections in Taiwan. Beyond this, savvier Chinese able to circumvent domestic internet controls, or “scale the wall” (翻墙), could seek out uncensored coverage.

Things were different this time around. As Phoenix TV beefed up its online coverage, that coverage was shared by Chinese internet users. The four major internet portal sites in China, Sina, QQ, Netease and Sohu, all prominently featured information on the Taiwan elections. The sites invited comment and context from figures readily recognizable to many Chinese, including the likes of former Phoenix TV commentators Cao Jingxing (曹景行) and Yang Jinlin (杨锦麟). Even People’s Daily Online devoted some attention to the story, although its treatment was relatively simple.

China now has more than 500 million internet users and, according to government figures, more than 300 million registered users of domestic microblogs. In recent weeks microblogs have been another medium through which information on the Taiwan elections has been shared actively. Information on the presidential elections was shared constantly through mainland-based microblog platforms, both by mainlanders in Taiwan and by Taiwanese users.

With information, including multimedia content, appearing on domestic internet sites and shared through social media, mainland users were able this time to find the latest information on the elections without circumventing domestic internet controls.

More interesting still was the commentary inside the mainland that could be found on Chinese microblogs. As Beijing hailed Ma Ying-jeou’s victory as positive for warmer cross-straits relations, mainland observers talked about the deeper significance of the elections. Writer Murong Xuecun remarked on his microblog account: “Regardless of whether Ma or Song wins the presidential elections in Taiwan, the victor is ultimately Taiwan. This is a victory of [Taiwan's political] system.”

The blogger Yao Bao, who writes under the pen name Wuyuesanren, remarked: “The focus in observing elections in Taiwan has already begun to shift from cross-straits relations and the question of Taiwan independence to the process of the elections themselves. This signals a greater consciousness of elections and rights among we who are watching from the sidelines . . . Possibly, the question of reunification or independence is not so essential, but actually superficial, and the real issue is whether [both sides of the straits] can see elections like this. If they do, there’s no controversy at all over the question of reunification.”

Other domestic microblog posts reflected Taiwan’s presidential elections back on politics at home: “The Kuomintang was once a dictatorial political party, but it turned over a new leaf, changing with the time. It decisively ended restrictions on the press and on other political parties [in the 1980s], ending the kickback politics and corruption of the era of tyranny. Eight years after being thrown from power, the Kuomintang regained the trust of the people and returned to power [with Ma Ying-jeou's election as president]. The Kuomintang shows us that a political party can reform itself, and that even if it steps down there is opportunity. But once a party has been overthrown by the people, it is completely finished.”

On another positive note, DPP presidential candidate Cai Ing-wen level-headedly conceded defeat while urging Ma Ying-jeou to address such issues as the growing gap between rich and poor in Taiwan, working for the prosperity of ordinary Taiwanese. In a political culture known for its heat and emotion, Cai did not shed tears or make emotional appeals. Instead, she encouraged her supporters to remain loyal to their ideals. They would feel disappointment, she said, but they must not give up. They must strive to be a strong opposition party, speaking out for disadvantaged groups.

The rational and orderly nature of presidential elections in Taiwan should bolster the courage of authorities in Beijing to explore democratic reforms in China. If Taiwan can achieve democracy, why can’t mainland China?

Why, for that matter, can’t Hong Kong? In Hong Kong, which calls itself “Asia’s international city,” the chief executive is still chosen by electoral committee rather than by popular vote. The process of selecting Hong Kong’s next chief executive will be under way soon. But now, as Taiwan has set the bar, how can we not feel a touch of shame?

A Chinese version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2012, edition of Hong Kong Economic Times.

5 Comments to “Elections in Taiwan set the bar for China”

  1. Robert Erhart says:

    fike2308:

    Threatening a tiny Island like Taiwan, shooting missiles before elections, and telling the people that they have no right for self-determination as a national entity and lives under constant military threat if they do.
    I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the definitive if imperialism.

  2. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    It is interesting that the Hong Kong Selection is not a democratic election. As Chris Patten once said: China like to see an election if she knows who is going to win. Among places ( rather than countries) of the Greater China, Taiwan seems to be the only place where a democratic election is practiced. In Singapore, which has a sizable population of Chinese descent, there were a few opposition party members being elected. That is a healthy sign. In the One Country Two Systems, an election of universal suffrage is still not attainable. What a pity.

  3. fike2308 says:

    most of the time, democracy doesnt work, and it clearly does not work in either hk, or tw. in order for democracy to truly work, people must be informed. currently, taiwanese, along with hongers are amongst the most disinformed people on the globe. taiwan has indeed become a heavily divided province. instead of fighting against each other, they could be working together to achieve some kind of common goal. it’s pretty obvious to me that the dpp, and kmt split in taiwan is caused by the u.s/ned because it is just one of their typical sepratist movements that they have going around the world. i think whats most shameful about hk is not its elections but how it has maintained as a colony of the gwailo even after it was returned to China. it’s one thing if imperialism is forced on you, but it’s an entirely different matter when you actually want imperialism. dont you find it shameful that most of hk’s wealth is going into the pockets of foreign bankers?

  4. ltlee says:

    The grass always looks greener on the other side. How do Taiwaners regard their democracy?
    In response to Times magazine praising Taiwan democracy, Taiwan’s Chinatimes.com ran an article pointing out the description of the Times article is misleading.
    http://news.chinatimes.com/forum/11051401/112012011100487.html
     ”然而,《時代》雜誌並未彰顯的藍綠兩極撕裂、二元對立問題,在台灣社會卻依然嚴重。原本外界認為(或是期待),個人特質接近的馬英九、蔡英文兩人競爭,加上兩大黨在兩岸關係之外的政見並無嚴重歧異,有可能讓過去幾次大選更加激化的藍綠對立氛圍得以緩解,但事實證明,藍綠陣營的選戰操作仍依循老路,二元對立仍是此次大選的核心命題。
     我們對於這樣的場景已經太過熟悉:為了挺藍或挺綠,很多家庭鬧到父母吵架、兄弟失和,許多好友從此反目、互不往來,同事互動或萬分尷尬或戒慎
    恐懼;久而久之,許多家庭、好友、同事之間只是避談藍綠免傷感情,但這種壓抑並無法消除心裡的二元對立怪獸,表面上和諧更不代表真正的多元與包容。
     於是我們再度看到雲林縣長蘇治芬為了胞兄蘇治灝挺馬而傷心痛苦,身為政治受難者蘇東啟的子女,蘇治芬抬出父親遺訓,建議哥哥要常回老家「去跟
    公媽拜拜,在那邊想想吧」。蘇治芬與蘇治灝此刻的心情,很多人都能理解與感同身受,無奈台灣社會這些年已在不知不覺間喪失了走出二元對立的能力。”
    In short, Taiwan has become a torn society.

  5. gregorylent says:

    bet that “survey” in hong kong conducted by the hku prof three days before the hong kong selection will be disavowed in strong terms? or, stopped?

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