Former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) was on Wednesday able to laugh it off when his account on Chinese microblogging Web site Sina Weibo was shut down less than 24 hours after he made it public.
The suspension did not come as a surprise, as people know how tightly the Chinese government runs its Internet controls and clamps down on free speech, but this was special because it happened to Hsieh.
Hsieh’s China policy is widely considered the most moderate among senior Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politicians and he became the first DPP heavyweight to visit China last year.
Beijing, which appeared to be ready for closer engagement with the independence-minded DPP, extended its goodwill by sending several high-ranking officials to meet Hsieh, who, conversely, was criticized by many of his fellow party members for “kowtowing to China” during the trip.
That explains why the case is so symbolic to Taiwanese, some of whom still expect Beijing to change its stance on reconciliation across the Taiwan Strait, and it was, perhaps, a stupid move by the Chinese government, which says it wants to “win the hearts of Taiwanese compatriots.”
In his Sina Weibo messages, Hsieh had been treading carefully around sensitive topics that might trigger Beijing’s censorship. He wrote about freedom of speech, but did not mention Taiwanese independence, Tibetan affairs or Falun Gong, topics likely to rile Beijing.
However, that was not enough to spare his account, which had more than 60,000 followers within hours of his public announcement of its existence.
No one understands what Beijing’s Internet controls are all about better than the Chinese themselves, with many saying they had been waiting for Hsieh’s account to be axed.
The suspension of Hsieh’s account made it even more difficult for Taiwanese to trust the Chinese government.
“If the government could not even tolerate Hsieh’s comments, I don’t know how it could convince Taiwanese [about unification],” a Sina Weibo user wrote.
Taiwanese seem to be trapped between conflicting thoughts about the emerging China. On one hand, they fantasize about the sheer size and potential of the Chinese market, with more young Taiwanese saying they are willing to move to China for better career opportunities and a higher salary, while on the other they know very well what is happening across the Taiwan Strait with regards to the lack of free speech and political oppression.
Beijing seems to believe that economic and political development can be separated. Particularly, freedom of speech is considered an “internal affair” in which other nations should not interfere.
However, the stakes are much higher for Taiwanese than nationals of other countries, who, to some degree, can separate doing business and the lack of respect of basic human rights in China.
For the million Taiwanese currently working and living in China, their freedom of speech and personal safety face the same threats as those of Chinese.
The people of Taiwan are increasingly concerned about Chinese influence in the media and the self-censorship of government officials, who seem to be avoiding topics that could offend Beijing.
The Hsieh incident is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Taiwanese concerns about what their future would be like if unification occurred or Beijing’s influence on Taipei became too strong to ignore.
It also serves as a reminder for Taiwanese about the significance of making basic human rights and values the basis of cross-strait engagements. After all, Hsieh could apply for a new Sina Weibo account, but the loss of freedom of speech is not as easy to rectify.