Changing perceptions in China

By Fan Shih-ping 范世平  / 

Mon, Dec 17, 2012 - Page 8

For a long time now the Chinese Communists Party’s (CCP) Taiwan policy has been informed by the concept of “placing hope in the Taiwanese public” to influence the situation from the ground, as opposed to through Taiwan’s leaders. The same is not true the other way around.

There have been very few attempts by Taiwanese politicians to appeal to the Chinese public. This is because there has been a general assumption that because China is an authoritarian state that lacks democracy and pays little attention to what its people actually think, public opinion is unlikely to have a discernible effect on the Chinese government’s Taiwan policy.

As it is widely believed that the Chinese have almost universally immutable, entrenched ideas when it comes to Taiwan and cross-strait issues due to the Chinese political education system and media indoctrination, there is little point in trying to change their attitudes. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in particular, has long been regarded as anti-communist and anti-China and appears to lump the Chinese and the Chinese authorities into one amorphous entity, that it views with a mixture of trepidation, enmity and derision.

However, recent reports that former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Thinking Taiwan Foundation intends to arrange seminars between Tsai and Chinese students in Taiwan suggests that this situation is starting to change.

Tsai’s performance during the presidential election earlier this year has already overturned existing impressions that people in China had of the DPP. For many years, the people believed the DPP to be a byword for Taiwanese independence and unreasonable demands. This impression was entirely negative.

The image Tsai projected was different. She is a woman, for a start, and her more approachable, professional and rational demeanor gave people on the other side of the Taiwan Strait cause to look anew. Her gracious concession speech following her defeat, and the democratic values of which it echoed, won her favourable opinion.

Another factor is the rapid and deep penetration of Internet access in China. This is giving people the ability to obtain more information and to express their views about it. The variety in the views expressed demonstrates that public opinion is no longer the monolithic creature some assume it to be. Many Chinese officials have fallen foul of questions raised by Chinese netizens.

Tsai evidently has faith in “placing hope in the Chinese public” strategy, with the intention of spreading the DPP’s message on democratic ideas and cross-strait issues in order to obtain the attention, interest and ultimately support of the Chinese public. The hope is that, over time, quantitative change will lead to qualitative change and that this will influence the CCP’s attitude toward the DPP. However, there are also figures within the DPP that are proving not to be so forward-thinking.

For example the future of the Golden Horse Film Awards was recently called into question because Taiwan is winning fewer awards than China. A number of DPP legislators said this is a product of China’s attempts at cultural unification. They want the awards to stop.

The winner of the Best Film award, Beijing Blues, made with an unknown cast on a modest budget, had not done well at the box office in a Chinese market preoccupied with big name actors. However, since it received approval in Taiwan the film gained popularity.

This shows that the Golden Horse Film Awards rises above the mass audience-oriented movie market in China and affords such movies the chance to be evaluated by independent pundits, perhaps enabling cutting edge directors from China to stand out. Furthermore, the focus the awards put on these movies will expose Chinese movie audiences to the values Taiwanese hold dear: Our inclusiveness of niche markets, cultural diversity, disadvantaged groups and democratic values. These will come to influence the audiences in China. Opposition to this by DPP legislators will not be judged kindly by the public.

Another issue of late that has proven to be contentious is the government extending health insurance to Chinese students who study in Taiwan. The sole reason that people are opposed to this is that Chinese students are not citizens of the Republic of China (ROC) and therefore have no right to benefit from our health insurance. In the light of current concerns about the health insurance fund the government was always going to come under fire for this policy, especially since the sentiment is not reciprocated to Taiwanese students in China.

These objections are primarily coming from DPP-affiliated politicians and the pro-green media and, while one cannot say they are wrong to think this way, they are taking a rather short-sighted stance and failing to see the forest for the trees.

When Chinese students come to Taiwan they see many aspects of life are in stark contrast to life back home: The democratic rule of law, the lack of Internet censorship and controls, helpful public bodies, a welcoming and harmonious society and a generally higher standard of living. Many Chinese students say they miss Taiwan after they return home.

It is these individuals, who have found out what Taiwan is really like, who have identified with Taiwan’s society and feel that is worth supporting. They are going to be the most effective guarantor for the nation’s security.

After Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) became DPP chairman, he said he wanted to engage more with China. For his party to now oppose health insurance provision for Chinese students while they are in Taiwan is counter to the logic of that initial vision.

The DPP wants to hold a grand debate on its strategy vis-a-vis China. Yes, it has to address issues like which resolutions to retain and which to ditch, and whether to accept the so called “1992 consensus” as a starting point for negotiations with China. However, the face it presents to the Chinese public and how it approaches the issues of democracy, human rights and society in China will be even more important.

The DPP needs to maintain an attitude of being “anti-communist yet not anti-China” and to engage more actively with the Chinese. Perhaps the Chinese will eventually identify with the DPP and offer it their support.

Fan Shih-ping is a professor in the Graduate Institute of Political Science at National Taiwan Normal University.

Translated by Paul Cooper