A democratic election is soon to take place in the Republic of China–not the People’s Republic of China, commonly known as mainland China, but Taiwan. This island sits just east of China and retains the official name “Republic of China” from the days before the bloody Chinese civil war, which ended in 1949 when the Nationalist government fled to Taiwan. Many Chinese insist that Taiwan remains a part of China, although Taiwan has its own military and its own democratic government, which provides a possible glimpse into what democracy might look like on the mainland. The upcoming presidential election in Taiwan, scheduled for January 14, has thus captured the attention of mainland Chinese and generated a stream of commentary online.
Most Chinese netizens support incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou, who favours a stable relationship with the People’s Republic. Commenters on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, were impressed that Ma politely answers questions and campaigns for votes in street markets, writing, “The type of political system really determines the quality of its leaders” and “We both share the same Confucian culture but our different systems have given us such different lives!” One microblogger exclaimed, “It’s only been 62 years [since the civil war]; why do I feel that there is 620 years of difference between us?”
Netizens were particularly taken with a campaign video on Ma’s Facebook page called Visa of Love. The video tells the story of a young Taiwanese travel guide whose globetrotting leaves him longing to return home and pursue the girl of his dreams. The video is meant to illustrate the Ma government’s success in convincing sixty-three additional foreign countries – for a total of 117 – to lift visa requirements on Taiwanese citizens.
In contrast to the Taiwanese, mainland Chinese can travel visa-free to only 30 or so countries, most of which don’t top anyone’s list. Chinese netizens mostly expressed admiration at the differential, not to mention some poignant jealousy: “I thought Hong Kong and Macau were part of our country. Then why do we need a visa to visit [these parts of] our own country? If only our brothers across the [Taiwan] strait would issue me a passport! Then I could freely travel the world.” Some netizens even expressed a desire, likely facetious, for “Taiwan to retake the mainland” in order to liberate them from “their painful existence.”
By depicting Taiwan as a warm and safe place to call home, Ma’s campaign video also addressed themes of displacement and return. These themes resonate deeply in mainland China, a country afflicted with wrenching dislocations and daily insecurities. Many netizens wrote they were “deeply moved” by the video, which they felt reflected “[Taiwanese] leadership’s ability to listen to the desires of its people” and the “pride, freedom and happiness” of the Taiwanese.
Even Ma’s opponent, Ms. Tsai Ying-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, which favours the eventual de jure independence of Taiwan from China, has her supporters on the mainland. In a recent campaign speech, Tsai could just as easily have been speaking to mainland Chinese when she said, “I want to create a united yet just society and a government that will not use tractors to roll over people’s land, will not use terror to deal with political opponents, will not use public resources for private gain, will not use money and political power to control the media and will not sacrifice human rights for short term interests.”
These are the kinds of words many mainland Chinese wish they could hear from their own leaders. One microblogger exclaimed with apparent amazement: “These words were spoken by a Chinese person!” although Tsai herself would probably not have appreciated the appellation. Others also responded positively, writing, “Every word is a true portrayal of mainland China,” “really hope this kind of person will become the president of mainland China” and imploring Tsai to “please organize a government to manage China!”