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Envious eyes across Taiwan Strait

19 January 2012 No Comment

There was another winner in last weekend’s election that handed Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou a second term in office – the faint but unmistakable clamour for democracy in China.

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 Chinese, who consumed online tidbits of election news and biting commentary.

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 marvelled 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 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.

Users expressed barbed humour about their own unelected leaders – and envy at Taiwan’s prodigious liberties – but also pride that their putative compatriots pulled off a seamless election free of the violence that marred previous campaigns in Taiwan, including a 2004 assassination attempt against the president at the time, Chen Shui-bian. ”On the other side of the sea, Taiwan erected a mirror. And on this side of the sea, we saw ourselves in the future,” read one well-forwarded comment by Xu Wei, a wine expert.

The election presented leaders in China with a challenge. To allow unfettered news media coverage of the race was out of the question, but to strangle the news online of a big international story might have provoked an uncomfortable backlash from China’s increasingly savvy internet users. The result was schizophrenic. In contrast to the relatively freewheeling commentary found on microblogs and internet news portals, the official press provided spare and neutered coverage of the balloting.

In its few dispatches on the race, the state’s Xinhua news agency avoided the words ”democracy” and ”president”, and it cast the contest as a local election, in keeping with Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is a breakaway province.

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