This article also appeared in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
China’s Web users have caught election fever — simulated election fever, that is. On the heels of a widely watched U.S. election, and on the cusp of China’s leadership-transition-by-fiat at the 18th Party Congress, commenters on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, have imagined what would happen if the ruling Chinese Communist Party faced off against the Kuomintang (KMT), which in 1949 fled mainland China for Taiwan after losing a bitter civil war. The KMT is currently the ruling party in democratic Taiwan.
The “election” began in earnest on November 8 when a popular wit with the handle “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) asked what might happen if China had a democratic election. He wrote to his 200,000-plus followers, “If China also had a national election, Zhejiang, Chiang Kai-shek’s birthplace, Fujian, and Taiwan would for sure go deep blue [for the KMT], while other southeast coastal provinces would also be a huge blue heartland; northern, northeast China and other revolutionary bases for the CCP would certainly go red; mid- and south-western China would be the dead-heat swing states. Ready to be phone-banked and canvassed!”
The post soon went viral, attracting over 3,000 comments and 8,400 reposts in a day’s time. He Weifang (@贺卫方), a law professor from elite Peking University, wrote, “Competing for power peacefully; how great it is to let people decide!” Like He, many users were excited about this imaginary election and contributed their own predictions of how the “electoral map” might break.
Despite the near certainty that Chinese censors are aware of this discussion thread, many users publicly stated that they would vote for the KMT, while Communist Party supporters largely stayed away from the discussion. Some users predicted that the blue (KMT) vote would sweep the entire nation, and suggested painting the whole map blue. Indeed, some users hailing from what might be assumed safe districts for the Communist Party declared that they, too, would vote for the KMT. As @mely04919 opined, “Though born in a red [province], I am a die-hard blue fan.” Not surprisingly, “voters” from “swing states” seemed happy to be pampered. @宋体 金牛座一枚 said, “I would love to be harassed by candidates for my vote, it gives me a sense of being a boss.”
But was Pretending To Be In New York overconfident in calling some districts for the Communist Party? Xiong Peiyun (@熊培云), a scholar and writer, thinks so. Xiong wrote, “[Depicting] the revolutionary bases as red is based on the assumption that they benefited greatly from the [Communist] revolution.”
Xiong has a point. If we accept Paul Krugman’s theory arguing that perceived trends in economic progress make more of an electoral difference than the actual condition of the economy, then the red states on this map wouldn’t be red at all, as growth in those regions has remained relatively low. One user with the handle “Want to be able to raise a family” (@:宋体 想养得起一个家) wrote, “The revolutionary bases are still poor after so many years. I live in [Henan province in] central China, but there are not even highways at home. Why categorize us as red?”
The discussion is perhaps another reflection of disappointment and frustration toward Chinese authorities. China faces a number of pressing social problems, including income inequality, high housing prices, media censorship, and a lack of de facto voting rights. Given this status quo, it is not surprising that some comments betray both dissatisfaction and naïvete. As @精品微博录 wrote, “If there is an election, we should watch who the candidates are and what they say. If I got elected I swear that my people would need to pay nothing except living expenses. Education and healthcare would be free! I would try to make housing affordable for the poor!”
Web users’ evident affinity for Taiwan and its ruling KMT is not surprising. While Western democratic models often seem unfamiliar and unattainable to many Chinese, Taiwan’s political system is perceived as a successful pilot experiment, growing out of a land that shares the same Eastern philosophy, culture and traditions as mainland China. Small wonder that the KMT has, from time to time, become the object of both jealousy and fantasy in the eyes of Chinese web users.
Not everyone enjoyed this brief, online dalliance with Chinese democracy. Some users criticized the discussion as straying too far from reality, while some were surprised how such a daring post could survive this long, particularly during China’s highly-sensitive 18th National Party Congress. As @I鸭梨山大 concluded, “You are pretending you are in New York, and we are pretending we are voting. Sigh! What a dream.”