Impact of Taiwan’s elections on China
Outside of Taiwan, no one is watching the presidential elections slated for Jan. 14 more closely than people in China. And it is not just the Chinese government that is doing it.
In fact, a 35-year-old man, Guo Jiyong, paddled three kilometers from the mainland to the Taiwan-held offshore island of Kinmen, apparently to observe the elections at first hand.
"I want to see your elections with campaign flags flying all over the place," he told reporters after he was detained for entering Taiwan illegally. “Taiwan and China are one country, how can you arrest me for illegal entry?”
While legislative elections will be held at the same time, interest understandably has focused on the presidential election, in which Ma Ying-jeou is seeking re-election. The incumbent’s main challenger is Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. James Soong, chairman of the People First Party, is also a candidate.
While in Taiwan the two televised presidential debates ― held on Dec. 3 and Dec. 17 ― were considered rather dull, on the mainland, where such debates are inconceivable, they have stirred great interest.
Mainland search engines showed well over a million searches for videos of the debates, followed by thousands of comments on the Internet.
While some commented on what the impact would be on cross-strait relations if the pro-independence DPP returned to power, others praised Taiwan’s democratic system and deplored the fact that democratic rights are denied to Chinese on the mainland.
One blogger, who used the name Shengdai/Xindi, said that he had a sense of pride after watching the first debate. “For long, we Chinese people have not had that kind of proud feeling,” he wrote.
“This is a first step in civil rights,” wrote another blogger using the name Guigumukong. Urging everyone in China to watch the Taiwan presidential debates, he said: “This is a way we can learn how national leadership should be elected. Only when state leaders are elected via a democratic process can Chinese become a democracy.”
Many themes, which are not acceptable to the Communist Party, were repeatedly sounded, including the need for multiparty elections. Writing on “What the Taiwan elections tell me,” one blogger commented: “The people actually are able to choose” while “the powerful are actually to be held accountable and criticized.”
“Are Chinese people only fit for despotism and totalitarianism?” another asked. “Just take a look at Taiwan.”
It is precisely because Taiwan is seen as part of China and its people as fellow Chinese that events on the island capture the imagination of people on the mainland. By comparison, Singapore despite its predominant ethnic Chinese population is seen as a foreign country and hence much less relevant as a model.
In fact, some mainland bloggers say that they want Taiwan to be part of China not so Beijing can exercise sovereignty over the island but because Taiwan is an example for China to emulate.
“When I was a child, I used to get real excited when I heard all that jazz about taking Taiwan back,” a blogger called Sipai wrote. “After watching the debate video, I’m thinking when the heck Taiwan is going to take us back.”
Phoenix Television, based in Hong Kong, asked Chinese viewers what they wanted the station to feature. Apart from cross-strait relations and possible reunification, mainlanders wanted to know what China can learn from Taiwan’s election.
Of course Hong Kong, which has rights and freedoms denied to their mainland compatriots, also serves as a model, especially in terms of an independent judiciary and the rule of law. But Hong Kong’s political development is controlled by Beijing, while Taiwan’s is not.
President Ma has noticed Chinese interest in Taiwan’s presidential campaign and said that democracy on the island will gradually have an impact on China.
“Some of the mainlanders,” he said, “asked if the general secretary [of the Communist Party, Hu Jintao] could also participate in a debate.”
The idea that a democratic Taiwan would serve as a model for the mainland originated with the late president Chiang Ching-kuo, who died in 1988. Ma served as his English interpreter and has made it clear since his inauguration that he cherishes the same hope.
It is ironic that while Beijing has tried to influence Taiwan’s presidential elections since they began in 1996 ― including the holding of missiles tests in the strait ― Taiwan’s elections are evidently having an impact, no doubt unwelcome, on the mainland as well.