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.