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HomeAsiaChinese netizens captivated by "fascinating" Taiwan election, says Radio Free Asia

Chinese netizens captivated by “fascinating” Taiwan election, says Radio Free Asia

Social media users and commentators in China were watching Taiwan’s elections closely on Saturday, with some expressing indirect support for Taiwan’s democracy, and others sticking closely to Beijing’s official line.

While state media appeared to be steering clear of the topic of the Taiwan elections, pro-China commercial media like Phoenix TV and Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper offered visible coverage of the poll on the social media platform Weibo.

And while many comments on Phoenix TV’s Weibo posts took the official Chinese Communist Party line that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China,” and that the elections are merely “provincial,” there were also some who challenged that view, expressing implied admiration for the democratic process.

“They’re choosing their own so-called “president” again,” wrote @Desert_Fish512 from Guangdong, while @Waffle_Man_Cultist_by-Akito asked, in an apparent reference to the lack of popular elections in China: “Do you get to choose your own here?” 

“You definitely can’t understand, because everything you have is given by the party,” commented @Xiaozheng 5871 from Henan.

“Very interesting election,” wrote @Just_you_angry_young_man from Shanghai. “We would only get such an intense battle when electing our class captain [in high school].”

They spoke ahead of an unprecedented third straight term victory for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party with its candidate Lai Ching-te, who has a strong track record of standing up to China, over the more China-friendly opposition candidates – Hou Yu-ih for the Kuomintang and Ko Wen-je for the Taiwan People’s Party.

The elections came amid ongoing threats from the ruling Chinese Communist Party to force “unification” on Taiwan – referenced in a pledge by Chinese leader Xi Jinping at New Year and rebuffed by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen – along with military saber-rattling in the South China Sea and the looming threat of economic sanctions.

Social media users shared a screenshot of a Chinese Communist Party propaganda poster from the 1950s on Jan. 13, 2024, the day of Taiwan’s presidential and parliamentary elections, which reads: “We have the right to vote, and to run for election!”

Late supreme leader Mao Zedong once promised that China would be a democracy if he came to power, but later went back on his word, according to Bao Tong, a former top Communist Party official.

Yet even on China’s tightly censored social media platforms, discussion didn’t always stick to the party line.

“They’re not independent, but they’re sure not unified either,” mused @SelfportraitVanGogh from Guangdong, while @Jing_Qiao_Qiao_1314 observed that “Taiwanese people are basically independent.”

Others described the majority of Taiwanese as having been “poisoned,” for not wanting to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, while others commented that Ko Wen-je had “split the [blue] vote.”

“They will [always] vote for the DPP, while the blue camp will always be divided,” wrote Kuomintang supporter @annpika from the United States. “My family and I will still vote, but to no avail.”

A_real_person506 in Jiangxi wondered why the DPP kept winning, despite strong opposition from China.

“Because you only see what the government wants you to see,” responded @Waiting_for_a_rich_woman_every_day from Sichuan.

@big-520-apple was more dismissive, commenting only: “Game of thrones,” while @Hongqiang_comes_out_of_the_wall took the party line: “No matter who is elected, the motherland must be reunified and will inevitably be reunified,” they commented from Sichuan.

“Does each one of them get a vote?” asked @Warm_tea_like_a_dream, while @erjiguanmeipiyanchishisiquanji opined: “They don’t want unification.”

A social media user who gave only the surname Mao for fear of reprisals said he had learned something of the differences between the main three parties by reading online exchanges, but hadn’t seen any coverage of the election in China’s official media.

“I haven’t seen any official media reports on the presidential elections in the Republic of China on Taiwan,” Mao told RFA Mandarin. “Everyone I know expects victory for the Democratic Progressive Party.”

“We hope that Taiwan will continue to move in the direction of freedom, democracy and the rule of law,” he said, adding: “Taiwan is now the only ideal land left for the Chinese people.”

The Global Times in English carried only a Jan. 12 report in which foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning reiterated Beijing’s line, with no mention of the election on the front page.

“The elections of the Taiwan region are China’s internal affairs and regardless of the result, it will not change the basic fact that Taiwan is part of China and there is only one China in the world,” she told a news conference in Beijing.

Chinese scholar Yan Ligeng said many Chinese people privately want a DPP victory, but also believe it will lead to retaliation in the form of economic sanctions.

“If Lai Ching-te of the DPP wins and is elected president, I estimate that mainland China’s policy towards Taiwan will only become more severe, because Lai Ching-te’s election is something mainland China does not want to see, because mainland China believes that an elected DPP president is a step closer to Taiwan independence,” Yan said.

Speaking before the results were announced, veteran political journalist Gao Yu said economic sanctions would be likely in the event of a Lai victory.

“Warnings of sanctions against Taiwan have been issued, including the termination of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and preferential tariffs, which have dealt a serious blow to the agriculture, fishery, auto parts and other industries in southern Taiwan,” she said.

But she didn’t believe a Kuomintang victory would be better for Taiwan in the long run, citing Hong Kong’s loss of its promised freedoms under Beijing’s “one country, two systems” framework.

“Only when the political system is guaranteed can the economy prosper,” she said.

A Hebei-based journalist who gave only the surname Gao for fear of reprisals said he doesn’t expect war in the near future, even with a DPP victory.

“Economic and trade sanctions will happen for sure, and there may be other actions, such as restricting the movements of Taiwanese people, and so on,” Gao said, adding that the island had reduced its economic dependence on China in recent years.

“But in the absence of military action, life shouldn’t be too difficult for them … Taiwan no longer needs to be restricted by China’s economy,” he said.

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Elaine Chan.

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