The Taiwan presidential election last month sparked renewed debate on social media about democracy in mainland China. Interestingly, the Chinese Communist Party seemed to hold off a little on online social media censorship. Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, was, by all accounts, buzzing with comments about the election as it happened. Millions followed the campaign, the debates and the results online.
Many netizens in China were eager to participate. A direct voting process was launched in a voluntary online mock election via Weibo, in which Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou also enjoyed strong support on the mainland. According to a Sina.com poll of 26,000 Chinese citizens, 55 percent supported Ma, while more than 25 percent supported another pro-China candidate James Song (who received less than 3 percent of the vote in Taiwan). This compares to a mere 20 percent who chose the main opposition candidate Tsai Ying-wen.(And even such mainland support for Tasi and her Democratic Progressive Party was more indicative of backing for domestic DPP proposals than for any pro-independence moves).
Still, Taiwanese are proud of their recent democratic tradition, a tradition apparently not lost on some mainlanders. One apparently Chinese user commenting on the BBC site, for example, wrote in a widely circulated joke: “just now, a Taiwanese friend said to me ‘I am going to vote tomorrow morning and we will know who will be the president by the evening.’ I felt thoroughly ashamed. I could only say to him ‘You guys are so backward, if we had to vote tomorrow morning, tonight we would already know who would be elected.’”
Another Taiwanese commenter posted elsewhere: “Reaching [Taiwan’s] standards in material prosperity as well as in individual freedom would be a worthy goal for China to emulate and would also make eventual reunification much easier. I strongly hope I will live to see the day China starts a campaign “learning from Taiwan.’”
It’s becoming increasingly evident that the Chinese Communist Party has become gradually less able to influence public opinion regarding the situation in Taiwan. There are several reasons for this. First, there’s more integration across the Strait, such as direct flights, agreements on tourism, trade deals and all the related human exchanges this entails, which makes old-fashioned propaganda less effective. Second, the CCP has adopted a more confident and realistic approach towards Taiwan as cross-Strait relations have made gradual progress over the last four years and as the mainland has increased its economic leverage over Taiwan. Third, although it’s not often mentioned, China’s leaders have closely observed and drawn lessons from Taiwan’s democratic transition. For example, when China’s civil affairs ministry revised the rules and procedures for China’s local elections, officials looked to Taiwan’s election laws and procedures and sought the input of Taiwanese experts.
The geographic proximity and cultural affinity between these two Chinese societies, along with their increased economic exchanges and social contacts, makes Taiwan a plausible social and political model for China to emulate. Ma’s peacefully contested re-election suggests that democracy might one day have a chance in China, too.
Yang Yi is a resident fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.