There was another winner in the election this weekend that handed President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) a second term in office — the faint but unmistakable clamor for democracy in China.
Thanks in large part to an uncharacteristically hands-off approach by Chinese Internet censors, the campaign between Ma and Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) was avidly followed by millions of Chinese, who consumed online tidbits of election news and biting commentary that they then spit out far and wide through social media outlets.
As the election played out last Saturday, a palpable giddiness spread through the Twitter-like microblog services that have as many as 250 million members. They marveled at how smoothly the voting went, how graciously the loser, Tsai, conceded and how Ma gave his victory speech in the rain without the benefit of an underling’s umbrella — in contrast with the pampering that Chinese officials often receive.
“It’s all anyone on Weibo was talking about this weekend,” Renmin University political science professor Zhang Ming (張明) said, referring to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog service.
Users expressed barbed humor about their own unelected leaders — and envy over Taiwan’s prodigious liberties — but also deeply felt pride that their putative compatriots pulled off a seamless election free of the violence that marred previous campaigns in Taiwan, including a 2004 assassination attempt against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).
“On the other side of the sea, Taiwan erected a mirror. And on this side of the sea, we saw ourselves in the future,” read one well-forwarded comment by Xu Wei, a wine expert.
The election, Taiwan’s fifth since it traded authoritarian rule for democracy in 1996, presented leaders in China with something of a challenge. While the Chinese Communist Party has long sought to portray democracy as unsuitable for the Chinese nation, it also considers Taiwan a part of China — despite a schism during which Taiwan has developed strongly-held ideas about free speech and self-determination.
To allow unfettered news media coverage of the race was out of the question, but to strangle the news online of a major international story might have provoked an uncomfortable backlash from China’s increasingly savvy Internet users. The result was schizophrenic: In contrast to the relatively freewheeling commentary found on microblogs and Internet news portals, the official press provided spare and neutered coverage of the balloting.
In its few dispatches on the race, Xinhua news agency avoided the words “democracy” and “president,” and it cast the contest as a local election, in keeping with Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is a breakaway province.
Overall, Xinhua’s reports have presented Ma’s win as a validation of Beijing’s newfound cross-strait detente, which has led to reduced tensions between the two governments, while enriching Taiwan’s economy with increased trade and tourism.
“The people of Taiwan have used their votes to express their desire for peace of mind, stability and development,” Xinhua wrote.
As is typical for politically sensitive news events, Chinese newspapers were instructed to run only Xinhua’s account of the election, but many editors appeared to make up for such constraints by running banner headlines, splashy graphics and large photographs of a triumphant, rain-soaked president.