Interest in Taiwan’s presidential election among Chinese citizens could go well beyond the actions of a man from Xinjiang who paddled from Xiamen, China, to Kinmen last week to “help” with the elections — at least if cyberspace is any indication.
Data mining conducted last week on various Chinese social media platforms seems to indicate great interest in the first presidential debate on Dec. 3 between Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜).
On the Baidu platform alone, more than 880,000 Chinese-language searches for “uncut television debate for the 2012 Taiwan Area leadership election” were recorded, with several variants also producing a high number of returns. Two combinations had more than 1 million searches.
Furthermore, Sina, the Global Times, Xinhua news agency, China Central Television (CCTV), Tencent, Phoenix, Kaidi and many local portals all contained news on the debate, although there were complaints online that some posts and video links had been deleted.
Searches for “Taiwan Area/TV debate,” meanwhile, featured some revealing tweets from Tencent and Netease.
One, written under the handle Sipai, read: “When I was a child, I used to get real excited when I heard all that jazz about taking Taiwan back. After watching the debate video, I’m thinking when the heck is Taiwan going to take us back.”
In another post, user Li Fangjun wrote: “While watching this debate over the lunch break I suddenly thought about what two colleagues said last week during a drive. According to them, if it was not for the Cultural Revolution and its extirpation of thousand-year-old traditions, the obstacles today’s China faces in its transition toward modernity would be even worse — almost unimaginable. Is it true that a beautiful future can only be drawn on a blank sheet of paper? Are Chinese people only fit for despotism and totalitarianism? Just take a look at Taiwan.”
On Sina weibo, a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter, the hash tag “Taiwan presidential election” brought 154,000 results, with one tweet, whose authorship could not be ascertained, rebroadcast several thousand times.
Titled “What the Taiwan Presidential Election Tells Me,” the entry read: “1. Chinese people are actually able to be democratic and it’s got nothing to do with race; 2. Elections are actually supposed to be debated and to depend on getting the approval of the people and it’s got nothing to do with ‘getting represented’; 3. Electoral platforms are actually supposed to be broadcast to the people first and they’ve got nothing to do with grand theories; 4. Democracy actually requires multiparty competition and it’s got nothing to do with one-party rule; 5. The people actually are able to choose and it’s got nothing to do with supporting or gratitude to the leadership; 6. The powerful are actually to be held accountable and criticized and it’s got nothing to do with their greatness and unfailing wisdom.”
According to one US analyst who could not be named in this article, some Chinese Internet users have written that they want Taiwan “to stay Chinese” not because of territorial sovereignty, but because Taiwan stands “as a shining example for China’s democratic future.”
The comments above, which appear to have become more common since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, could indicate that views toward Taiwan and its democracy have grown rapidly more pluralistic as social media have liberalized, the analyst said.
While it might be that some in China have always held this opinion and were merely censored before, the analyst said that opinion had discernibly grown as exposure to the facts and realities in Taiwan have increased.
The Chinese government, which maintains a tight grip on media, has allowed coverage of the presidential election to be discussed and covered on social media to an unprecedented, if not altogether complete, degree.
As of Friday night, Sina weibo, one of the most popular microblogging platforms in China, with more than 250 million registered users, had not blocked the search term “Taiwan Presidential Election.” This indicates that the terms are not on the platform’s list of blacklisted keywords, such as “human rights” and “Liu Xiaobo” (劉曉波).
Of course, the Chinese government could be acting strategically in the hope that an open approach will boost approval for Ma and soften Taiwanese impression of the Chinese government, the analyst said, adding that whether that tactic backfired and encouraged more Chinese to demand democracy appeared to be less of a concern for now.