Tea Leaf Nation

Repeat After Me: Taiwan’s Recent Elections Had Nothing to Do With Hong Kong

That’s the narrative in mainland China, as censorship and state media seek to erase the elephant in the room.

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If China was in fact the invisible candidate in Taiwan’s local elections, it just lost in a landslide. On Nov. 28, voters on the self-governing island, which mainland China considers a renegade province, selected candidates for over 11,000 village and local level positions, resulting in a resounding defeat for the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), the party which under Taiwan President and (soon to be former) KMT Chairman Ma Ying-Jeou has spearheaded 21 trade agreements between Taiwan and the mainland. Yet noticeably absent in Chinese media coverage and censor-approved social media discussion was any mention of what was likely a key factor in Taiwan’s election outcome: the pro-democracy protests in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, which Taiwan’s anti-mainland protest leaders have said they are closely watching. The Taiwan elections were a demonstrably sensitive issue for Chinese censors; according to Weiboscope, a Chinese social media project operated by the University of Hong Kong, “Taiwan” was a top censored term on Chinese social network Weibo on both Nov. 29 and 30.

Instead of engaging the Hong Kong question, mainland media coverage of the Taiwan elections largely sought to portray Taiwan’s democratic system as chaotic, its voters weary of partisan gridlock between the KMT and the far less Beijing-friendly Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece People’s Daily wrote on Nov. 30 that the election of an independent candidate as mayor of Taipei — a traditional KMT stronghold whose mayors have often gone on to become president — indicates that people in Taiwan are “extremely disgusted” with bipartisan struggle. The nationalist state-run Global Times wrote in a Dec 1 editorial that Taiwan’s KMT-DPP “binary antagonism” causes “serious social tears” at each election, and that the “chaos of democratic politics will only worsen Taiwan’s fatigue.” And in a Dec. 1 dispatch for the right-wing mainland magazine Observer, a Taiwan-based contributor even characterized the elections as “brutal,” asserting that the swing toward the DPP would bring only “illusions, not hope.”

It wasn’t just state-run media; independent media and Chinese bloggers also seemed to miss the obvious Hong Kong connection in their efforts to analyze the election outcome. A Nov. 29 article in Hong Kong-based (and generally pro-Beijing) Phoenix Media averred that the KMT faltered because it had lost touch with Taiwan’s young voters, who are “no longer constrained by the old narratives of KMT versus DPP or independence versus unification,” but rather are concerned with economic growth, job opportunities, and housing prices. Li Kan, a well-known nationalist critic with 1.9 million followers on Weibo, argued in a popular Nov. 30 post that mainland authorities should have utilized the “charm of the CCP’s anti-corruption campaign” to woo Taiwan. Li speculated that the reason none of the officials in China’s Taiwan Affairs Bureau, which handles China’s end of the cross-strait relationship, had fallen in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-graft campaign is that mainland authorities feared the DPP would use evidence of corruption to criticize the ruling KMT and its relationship with the mainland. But Li asserted that giving the Taiwanese a “display of the CCP’s determination in opposing plutocracy” would have been a better long-term strategy.

For many in Taiwan, the connection between Hong Kong’s current struggle and Taiwan’s future is clear. Now stretching into their third month, the protests in Hong Kong — and Beijing’s refusal to grant democratic concessions — have given some Taiwan activists a taste of what some see to be the true nature of “one country, two systems,” which Beijing has proffered as a path to unification with the mainland. Slogans such as “today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” seem to have resonated with Taiwan voters. Even President Ma, whose six-year term has been marked by close economic ties with Beijing, spoke out regarding the Hong Kong protests in a clear message to the mainland, roundly rejecting “one country, two systems” put forth by Beijing. “If the system is good,” Ma told Al Jazeera on Sept. 29, “it should be ‘one country, one system.’”

Some mainland Chinese did acknowledge the elephant in the room, albeit on social media, which is highly censored but remains far less controlled than mainstream media. One widely viewed post on WeChat, China’s huge mobile messaging platform, cited the current Hong Kong protests as one reason the KMT lost so badly to the DPP. The post seemed to hit a nerve, garnering over 22,000 views since Dec. 1. “Taiwanese have already seen what the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ looks like in Hong Kong,” the post argued. “What are people [in Hong Kong] doing right now? Everyone can see clearly.”

That post has so far escaped censors, but similar posts on Weibo have not. In a now-deleted Dec. 1 post, one Weibo user wrote of the Hong Kong protests, “Is this the only way you can treat your own people? You’ve scared away the Taiwanese.” Other users posted and reposted a rhyme comparing young people in the three regions: “Taiwanese students know how to say ‘no,’ Hong Kong students know how to say ‘we want,’ but mainland students only know how to say ‘everything’s fine.’” Another post that was frequently forwarded (and busily deleted by censors) wrote that after the recent elections, “Taiwan is crazy, Beijing is foolish, Hong Kong is happy” — Taiwan is crazy for shrinking its pro-Beijing districts to only six in a single day; Beijing is foolish for signing so many trade agreements with Taiwan, only for the island to once again turn to the DPP; and Hong Kong is happy now that it has a partner to help it teach Beijing a lesson in democracy.”

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy, where she covers counterintelligence and Chinese government interference in the United States. @BethanyAllenEbr

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