by Jacob Fromer
Last month, Taiwan elected Ma Ying-jeou to a second term as president. As elections go, it was ordinary: voters lined up, submitted ballots, and went home to watch the results on television.
On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, thousands of mainland Chinese citizens witnessed the same thing: they watched Taiwan’s voters line up, submit ballots, and go home to watch the results.
This was groundbreaking. Not because the concept of democracy is new in China — it isn’t — but because, for the first time, the Chinese were able to watch a presidential election take place live in a deeply familiar culture. For once, it was largely uncensored — and it was all possible because of a microblog site called Weibo.
When I traveled to Taiwan and China this winter at the height of Taipei’s election season, Taipei was bustling— billboards on every bus, pundits on every channel, and a get-out-the-vote effort at a jammed night market. Beijing, it seemed, was quiet as usual.
But when I turned to Weibo, I discovered that China was also humming with political commentary in this unprecedented online community.
Weibo is one of the most dynamic websites on the Chinese Internet. As the country’s largest microblog, its membership is approaching the size of the entire population of the United States. Despite the Chinese government’s sophisticated censorship (Twitter has been blocked since 2009, and “sensitive” phrases like “Hu Jintao” are banned from Weibo’s search queries), Weibo has managed to become a platform for the most freewheeling public discourse in mainland China. Every day, millions of users openly speculate, debate, and criticize issues that cannot be publicly discussed anywhere else in the country.
When I logged onto Weibo on Taiwan’s election day, I was bombarded by tens of thousands of wide-eyed netizens rubbernecking at the election in real-time from across the Strait.
Most Chinese citizens never get exposure to democracy in action. Everyone in China knows what democracy is, but they rarely see it without editing or commentary from Beijing. A common propaganda line is that open elections cause chaos and can rip societies in two. Video clips of legislators brawling in the halls of Asia’s capitols are easy to find online, and last summer’s U.S. debt debacle convinced many skeptics that Beijing would not benefit from a similar system. But the Taiwanese election was ordinary and orderly, with the loser graciously conceding defeat. It was, in many ways, a ringing procedural success.
Why did Weibo allow such a vibrant discussion of the election when it routinely gags topics that are much less consequential? Why did Weibo provide live streams of Taiwanese television broadcasters analyzing and explaining the election, while mainland tour groups in Taipei on election day apparently had orders to stay in their hotels until voting had finished?[i] Why, when the mainland Chinese government has been doing everything it can to keep Arab Spring ideas out of the country, were Chinese citizens given this unusual and unprecedented opportunity to observe a presidential election?
We may never know why the Government of China failed to or chose not to censor Weibo that day. But whatever the reasons, the impact was enormous. By the end of the day, “Taiwan election” stood at the top of Weibo’s hourly-updated “hot topics” list. It was three times as popular as the second-most-searched term, while “Ma Ying-jeou,” the winner, was third, and “Tsai Ing-wen,” the runner-up, was tenth. People were talking about democracy!
Most importantly, the coverage of Taiwan’s election undermined yet another popularly accepted Beijing propaganda line: that democracy would be a poor fit for the Chinese system. On the streets of Beijing, it doesn’t take long to find an opinionated taxi driver to explain why the Chinese can’t handle an American-style system — China’s history, Confucian culture, or some other unique characteristic makes it impossible.
But Taiwan’s voters aren’t citizens of the West. They are Chinese compatriots — at least according to most on the mainland. (Just try a Weibo search for some conflicting opinions on this sensitive subject). If the Taiwanese can handle it, can mainlanders, too? Are the thousands of mainland witnesses of this election rethinking China’s incompatibility with democracy?
“Yesterday,” one mainlander wrote the day after the election, “Weibo wasn’t talking about anything but Taiwan’s election. To be honest, I have no interest in politics, but when I saw all those regular people in Taiwan exercising their right to vote, I got so jealous. And then I felt ashamed.”[ii]
Screenshot of the above quote from the Weibo website. (2012-01-14 at 2.06.28 PM)
No one can predict the future of China’s political system. But because of the unprecedented coverage of Taiwan’s election, Weibo may have changed more than a few minds about democracy.
[i] Mark MacKinnon, “Beijing Limits Democracy Tourists to Taiwan,” The Globe and Mail, January 13, 2012.
About the Author
Jacob Fromer is a first year Masters of Law and Diplomacy student at the Fletcher School, where he is studying Pacific Asia. He lived in Beijing for three years and is fluent in Mandarin.