Saturday’s elections in Taiwan returned President Ma Ying-jeou (right), a result that is likely to please China’s Communist rulers, some observers suggest, since the incumbent has sought to improve relations with Beijing since he was first elected in 2008.
Ma, representing the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, won 51.6 percent of the vote, while the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen drew 45.6 percent. Turnout exceeded 74 percent. The KMT retained its majority in the legislature, albeit with a reduced margin:
The result was a relief for Beijing, which still hopes for reunification with the self-ruled island and viewed the re-emergence of the pro-independence DPP with alarm. The election was also watched closely in Washington, amid concerns that a Tsai victory could lead to instability in relations with China.
“You can only interpret this as an unequivocal mandate … The KMT must be delighted,” said Jonathan Sullivan, an expert on Taiwan at the University of Nottingham. “Given that there was a lot of dissatisfaction with Ma’s performance, and Tsai mobilised that extremely well, this was the DPP’s opportunity. Ma was very clear about what he was offering [in terms of closer ties to the mainland] and if people didn’t want that they had an opportunity to say so.”
Others suggest that the Communist authorities’ principal reaction will be one of relief that Taiwan will not be a top agenda item as they enter a politically charged succession.
“I’m not sure [China] has a real good consensus among the leadership about exactly where they want to go,” said Shelley Rigger, a professor of political science at Davidson College. “Obviously they have their ultimate destination in mind, but they understand unification is way off. And they really need to figure out what they’re asking for in concrete terms.”
On the other hand:
Wang Yeh-li, chairman of the political-science department at National Taiwan University, disagreed, arguing that Mr. Ma is limited in the steps he can take, as anything that is perceived as moving too close to China would do great damage to the KMT’s support base for future elections.
“Ma’s sliding popularity is a strong message to Beijing that even though Ma still represents the majority sentiment of Taiwan, there are many who are very suspicious of his leadership. This means Ma will likely take a tougher stance on Taiwan’s sovereignty in future talks with Beijing,” he said.
But the poll was also notable for affirming the faint but unmistakable clamor for democracy on the mainland and for demonstrating that while Taiwan’s democracy is only 16 years old, it is “deeply embedded in the island’s culture.”
Thanks in large part to an uncharacteristically hands-off approach by Chinese Internet censors, the campaign between Mr. Ma and his main challenger was avidly followed by millions of mainland Chinese, who consumed online tidbits of election news and biting commentary that they then spit out far and wide through social media outlets.
As the election played out on Saturday, a palpable giddiness spread through the Twitter-like microblog services that have as many as 250 million members. They marveled at how smoothly the voting went, how graciously the loser, Tsai Ing-wen, conceded and how Mr. Ma gave his victory speech in the rain without the benefit of an underling’s umbrella — in contrast with the pampering that Chinese officials often receive.
“It’s all anyone on Weibo was talking about this weekend,” said Zhang Ming, a political science professor at Renmin University in Beijing, referring to Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog service.
One image that inspired a welter of favorable reaction was an encounter between Mr. Ma and a peevish pork vendor who turned away in disgust. “At a time like this, one can really see who is the servant and who is the master, and experience what a balanced system is,” wrote the Chinese blogger Han Zhiguo.
“It is striking how much interest Taiwan’s election generated among China’s 500 million internet users,” the BBC’s Damian Grammaticus observes:
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.
He cites a China Digital Times sample of the Weibo comments – some “grimly humorous about the lack of democracy, others openly jealous of Taiwan.”
A user called darkillzhou told a joke that was widely forwarded. He wrote: “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.’”
Some wanted to congratulate Taiwan. “I believe Zhongnanhai [where China's Communist leaders live] and officials at every provincial level are as tense as everyone else on Weibo and are thinking, what kind of impact Taiwan’s election without gunshots will have on the mainland. This impact definitely surpasses [the Jasmine revolution]… people in Taiwan are truly great. Once and for all, they have destroyed the 100-year demonisation of the Chinese people [the idea that we cannot have democracy]… Democratic elections do not have to lead to violence.”
“In the world of freedom and democracy, politics is more beautiful, at least much better than in the world of authoritarian hypocrisy. Both Ma and Cai’s manners, minds and style are admirable.” noted Wang Gongquan, a CDH Investment partner:
Because of the recent opening up of ties between the two sides, and the increasing power of microblog sites like Sina Corp.’s Weibo, Taiwan’s election was also given unprecedented attention by Chinese across the strait.
Weibo featured an official vote counter as ballots were tallied, and commentators expressed frank opinions for and against the candidates, and also Taiwan’s democratic system in general.
One US-based observer says some Chinese Internet users have written that they want Taiwan “to stay Chinese” not because of sovereignty issues, but because Taiwan stands “as a shining example for China’s democratic future,” reports suggest.
Analysts differed in their assessments of the poll’s broader significance.
“What this election showed is that business interests in Taiwan now trump ideological ones,” said Edward I-hsin Chen, a former legislator and a professor at Tamkang University.
The Chinese agency that handles Taiwan affairs lauded Mr. Ma’s victory, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news service, saying it showed that improved cross-strait ties were the “correct path and have the support of the Taiwanese compatriots.”
But the narrow margin of Ma’s victory highlights the deep divisions and anxiety within Taiwan’s electorate.
“The true message of this election is that people in Taiwan are anxious about the future, and Beijing would be wise to note this division,” said Richard C. Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.
Baidu, the Chinese internet search engine, showed 880,000 searches for “2012 Uncut Television Debate for the 2012 Taiwan Area Leadership Election. Several other variants exist, two of which each totaled a million (stats are from early December 2011: they likely rose significantly prior to the election). Sina, Global Times, Xinhua, CCTV, Tencent, Phoenix, Kaidi and many local portals all covered the news. Two featured tweets from Tencent and Netease are as follows:
Sipai: When I was a child, I used to get real excited when I heard all that jazz about taking Taiwan back. After watching the debate video, I’m thinking when the heck is Taiwan going to take us back?
Li Fangjun: While watching this debate over the lunch break I suddenly thought about what two colleagues said last week during a drive. According to them, if it was not for the Cultural Revolution and its extirpation of thousand-year-old tradition, the obstacles today’s China face in its transition towards modernity would be even worse – almost unimaginable. Is it true that a beautiful future can only be drawn on a blank sheet of paper? Are Chinese people only fit for despotism and totalitarianism? Just take a look at Taiwan.
On Sina weibo, 154,000 results came up for the search hash tag “Taiwan Presidential Election.” Again, several variants exist for which I did not count search results. This tweet is one of the most frequently rebroadcast quotes, with many rebroadcasts tallying several thousand times:
What the Taiwan Presidential Election Tells Me
Chinese people are actually able to be democratic, and it’s got nothing to do with race;
Elections are actually supposed to be debated and to depend on getting the approval of the people, and it’s got nothing to do with “getting represented,”
Electoral platforms are actually supposed to be broadcast to the people first, and they’ve got nothing to do with grand theories;
Democracy actually requires multiparty competition, and it’s got nothing to do with one-party rule;
The people actually are able to choose, and it’s got nothing to do with supporting or gratitude to the leadership;
The powerful are actually to be held accountable and criticized, and it’s got nothing to do with their greatness and unfailing wisdom.