Cross-strait winds of change blow
cold By Jens Kastner
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
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
enthusiastically posted related comments on
China's social networking sites.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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
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".
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.
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.
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
Jens Kastner is a
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