Cross-strait winds of change blow cold
For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
TAIPEI – International media have been abuzz with reports that Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections in January impressed the masses in China deeply. But now the dust has settled, it remains questionable that the spectacle will be enough to speed up China’s own democratization.
From candidates’ TV debates in the electoral run-up to live video feeds of vote counting and the loser’s concession of defeat, in China – where citizens can’t even vote in TV talent shows – authorities surprisingly allowed unprecedented access to information about the island’s polls.
Many millions of mainlanders are believed to have witnessed the Taiwanese elections live through the Internet, while tens of
thousands enthusiastically posted related comments on China’s social networking sites.
On Chinese web portals Sina, Sohu, NetEase and Tencent, among others, Taiwan’s democratic system was described in detail. There was also a phenomenon dubbed “political tourism”, whereby droves of Chinese visitors who happened to be in Taiwan locked themselves in their hotel rooms to watch freewheeling TV news, while others took positions in front of polling stations for first-hand experience.
The developments seem even more impressive when compared to elections in 2008. Then, all a limited audience of Chinese could do to access coverage was turning to Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV or circumvent domestic Internet controls, which was by no means as easy as child’s play.
This time around, “the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] had to surrender to China’s 500 million Internet users”, some commentators rejoiced. Others boldly proclaimed that “Taiwan’s democratic experience once and for all belied the CCP’s mantra that democracy is nothing but a recipe for chaos.”
Catching the spirit, newly-re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) declared, “I believe this [the peaceful elections] is the best gift from us to the mainland.”
From 2008, the year Ma took office, the Taiwanese have gradually eased entry restrictions for Chinese citizens. By the end of 2011, the island had drawn more than three million visitors from across the strait. In the many heated legislative debates between the KMT and the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party, which wants to keep Taiwan’s gates closed, the KMT long argued that the Chinese would come, see and appreciate Taiwan’s democratic system.
Taiwan would export democracy bit by bit. The legislature itself, as the symbol of Taiwanese democracy, was promoted by the Ma administration as a must-see attraction for Chinese tourists.
However, other democratic countries in the region, let alone in the West, have seen an influx of Chinese tourists, businesspeople, academics and students for much longer. Almost two million visited South Korea last year and more than 1 million went to Japan, both democratic countries that arguably take good care of their citizens. Whether traveling or surfing the Internet at home, the Chinese could witness many orderly elections and uneventful transitions of power.
The optimism over Taiwan exporting democracy also comes amid tough times for China’s democracy movement, with draconian jail sentences handed down for online criticism of one-party rule. The government is pushing through a provision in the draft criminal procedure law that would effectively legalize dissidents’ disappearances.
Researchers on China’s human rights don’t expect the situation to get better anytime soon, accordingly. Quite the opposite: With the CCP keen for stability as the leadership transition scheduled for autumn unfolds, 2012 is set to be a lot worse, they say.
There are much more subtle indicators that despite Taiwan’s shining example, in terms of political reform, nothing will change in China. Days after the Taiwanese elections, Beijing adopted a suspiciously low-key approach to the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s famous southern tour.
During his five-day visit to Hubei, Guangdong and Shanghai from January 18 to February 21, 1992, the former paramount leader vociferously advocated reform, with his bold remarks are attributed with helping China embark on an era of spectacular growth.
However, no noteworthy official activities were held in Beijing or any other cities in commemoration, which analysts see as a telling move by the leadership. The message is very clear: An atmosphere where more voices would dare call out politically sensitive demands won’t be tolerated.
The state-run Global Times, which often plays a key role in propaganda campaigns, unambiguously told the Chinese public what it should make of the elections in Taiwan. An editorial published three days after the polls addressed the question that overwhelmed Chinese Internet sites: “Why can’t the same style of elections be held here?”, providing a response that didn’t stray a centimeter from the CCP party line.
“Systems designed for modern countries are not exactly suitable for gigantic countries like China. Because of its size, China risks being broken up. It is the Chinese destiny to maintain the country’s unity. We must safeguard the islands in the South China Sea, fight off the separatists within Taiwan and bravely deal with possible wars.”
The editorial concluded on a cryptic note: “A great China is not necessarily beneficial in every way, but any progress in this pursuit will be.”
In interviews, experts on China’s democratization shared how much of a positive influence Taiwan had been lately.
Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, said the Chinese not only took note that heaven did not fall because of the unpredictability of the elections, but also that it struck them that “Ma did not use extra legal means to steal the presidential election when it looked like he was at serious risk of losing”.
He subsequently made plausible argument why a successful Taiwanese democracy was much more important for China’s democratization than those of other countries.
“A significant number of the more thoughtful Chinese citizens were impressed, and many wondered, if the Taiwanese, who the CCP keep telling them are Chinese, can do it and do it so impressively, why should they, the proper citizens of China, not explore this option,” he said.
According to Tsang, the phenomenon came about in the first place by the improved communication, the easing of (cross-strait) tension, the CCP insistence that Taiwanese are Chinese, and the KMT rhetoric that does not assert Taiwanese as a separate nation.
“If Taiwan were seen as a separate nation, its relevance to Chinese citizens would be significantly less,” he said.
In Hong Kong, Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University’s Department of Political Science, agreed that the Taiwanese experience with democracy now at long last is starting to have positive images among mainlanders.
“They used to downplay the achievements of Taiwan, but this has changed. As a result, Taiwan actually has some soft power that now influences many ordinary Chinese,” he said.
But Zhang in the same breath expressed doubts whether the Taiwanese influence would be sufficient to impact China’s democratization. “I don’t think so. China’s political path will be shaped by its own domestic factors.”