Chinese mainlanders’ interest in Taiwan democracy fades

By Zhang Yiqian and Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2016-1-18 19:33:01

Compared with previous Taiwan elections, both the central government in Beijing and the mainland public reacted differently to the victory of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, who has long been seen as a pro-separatist figure.

Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party celebrates her victory in the Taiwan general elections with supporters in Taipei, January 16. Photo: CFP

As campaigning came to an end and Taiwan chose its new leader in a democratic election, across the Taiwan Straits, the election's result has left many anxious about the future and mainlanders' skepticism of the island's democratic system is continuing to grow.

The mainland authorities exhibited a reserved attitude following the announcement of the election results. A statement issued by the Taiwan Work Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in response to Tsai Ing-wen's victory did not even mention the name of Taiwan's new "president" or her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It only says that the mainland's policies towards Taiwan are "consistent and clear, and will not change with the results of Taiwan elections."

This is in stark contrast to Beijing's attitude in 2004, when then DPP Chairman Chen Shui-bian was re-elected the "president" of Taiwan. Back then, China's Taiwan Affairs Office, angry about his pro-independence stance, held press conferences to criticize his apparent intention to declare Taiwan's independence.

Commentators say one reason is that China's economic influence, which grew rapidly in the past decade, makes it more confident about its relationship with Taiwan and that the Chinese mainland now has more say in the cross-Straits relationship. "Since Taiwan relies heavily on its economic ties with the mainland, the initiative in the cross-Straits relationship is in the hands of the Chinese mainland," Hu Benliang, a research fellow with the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.

Some rightist commentators, however, praised Tsai's rationality and persistence during her electorial campaign, and said the successful election is a victory for Taiwan's system. Feminists in the Chinese mainland also welcomed Tsai's victory, saying the election of Taiwan's first female "president" is a victory for feminism.

In sharp contrast, some leftist bloggers, or those whose opinions side with the central government took a hard line toward Taiwan's new leadership.

Zhou Xiaoping, a popular nationalist blogger, wrote a "public letter" to Taiwan on his Weibo after the election. "In the past, the Chinese mainland was relatively poor compared with the wealth of Taiwan. But now, the Chinese mainland is much richer, while the economy of Taiwan has remained stagnant for over a decade … if you [Taiwan] continue to be obstinate, you will be the one to lose the opportunity to future development," he wrote.

Some even suggested enforcing an economic embargo on the region if the new Taiwan leadership challenges the one-China policy. Sima Nan, a leftist scholar, wrote a commentary after Tsai's victory, arguing that China should study how to turn its economic advantage into a political advantage over Taiwan. In a patronizing article, he described the over $100 billion trade surplus that Taiwan enjoyed over the mainland each year as "a favor" that the mainland does to Taiwan, and said Taiwan is not returning the favor or showing any sense of gratitude. "As [the DPP] steps into power, and refuses to agree to the one-China policy, is it still necessary for us to continue this support?" he said in the article.

While mainstream opinion does not embrace the idea of using force to capture Taiwan, voices advocating that the mainland should force Taiwan to reunite with the mainland through military intervention have revived since Tsai's election. Many brought up the Anti-Succession Law, which offers legal support to using non-peaceful means against Taiwan's independence movement in the event of a declaration of independence.

Wang Hongguang, former deputy commander of the Nanjing regional military command, said in an article prior to the election that if Taiwan people elect a separatist as their "president," they are choosing war."I suggest Taiwan military compare their forces with Nanjing's military region … and gauge their chances of winning [the war] … Don't mislead Taiwan people and let them become the sacrifices of Taiwan separatists," he wrote.

Mixed feelings toward elections

Taiwan previously enjoyed a golden era of economic development and was once admired by many mainlanders as a role model. In the 1980s and 90s, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea were known as the "Four Asian Tigers" for their rapid development and for successfully navigating the 1998 financial crisis.

However, the attitude of mainlanders toward Taiwan's democratic political system has changed over the years.

As the only region in the Chinese-speaking world to adopt universal suffrage to choose its leaders, the development of the democratic system of Taiwan has been closely watched across the Taiwan Straits.

In 2012, mainland focus on the elections snowballed in the weeks beforehand. Some even decided to fly to Taiwan and observe it firsthand, including Wang Shi, chairman of China's largest residential real estate developer Vanke, who live-blogged the election on Weibo. Some media speculators believed that election showed mainlanders how democracy could work in a Chinese society. After the election in 2012, there was a lot of discussion on the matter.

But since then, the mainland public's attitude towards Taiwan's system has changed. After this election, even though many still expressed their envy of Taiwan's democracy, on the Internet people mocked the results of the election as well as the Taiwan public.

This echoes mainlanders' rising skepticism of Taiwan, as seen in netizens' reaction to controversies over the Taiwan-mainland relationship.

In the past couple of years, an influential factor in ties has been the demonstrations in Taiwan against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which is a major cooperation system to secure economic ties with the mainland. On March 18, 2014 hundreds of people, mostly university students, occupied the main assembly hall of the legislature in Taipei to protest the Kuomintang's push for the pact.

Most mainlanders supported the CSSTA which would bring Taiwan closer to the mainland, and when some Taiwan celebrities openly supported the demonstrations, netizens reacted by commenting on their social media that these stars should "get out of the mainland." While this event marked many Taiwan young people's first foray into democratic politics, across the Straits many mainlanders saw the events as proof that democratic systems bring chaos, with some starting to relish the consistency of the CPC system rather than the quarreling of a democratic system.

Hu said an uncontrollable element that may hinder the development of a closer relationship between Taiwan and the mainland is the opposition of Taiwan public opinion.

In 1987, then Taiwan leader Chiang Ching-kuo abolished martial law and ended the era of the Kuomintang's authoritarian rule over the island. That ushered in the island's democracy, and over the decades, the system developed itself as people on the mainland watched carefully.

Hu said at first people in the mainland might have been proud that democracy was realized in a non-Western region. Besides, the mainland has many social issues and democracy seemed like it might a be good way to solve them.

But after 20 years of practice, people are beginning to see that democracy cannot solve everything, especially given that Taiwan's economy has been slipping despite its democratic development.

This is echoed by mainland students who are studying in Taiwan. After the recent election, Han Xin, an exchange student from the mainland studying journalism at Taiwan University, wrote a column for in which he argued that people like him have become disappointed in Taiwan's politics after seeing how the elections were carried out.

One classmate told him that elections have become a finger-pointing war between the parties. "The point of the election was not to bring forward policies on improving Taiwan's society, but to win over the public's votes," he wrote.

Another classmate told Han that the public in Taiwan doesn't care much about issues during elections and focuses on candidates' morals and values. For example, in all the debates, the issue of nuclear power was never really discussed fully, but people simply voted for the individual they prefer, Han wrote.

Newspaper headline: Ballot cynics

Posted in: In-Depth

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