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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Observing Taiwan’s Democracy Through the Eyes of a Chinese Journalist

Article by: Guangyi Pan

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

A Record-Breaking Year

The year 2024 is the biggest election year in history, with more than half of the world’s population heading to the polls. On January 13, 2024, Taiwan witnessed the first outcome among all upcoming elections, with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) winning a historic third term. Since its democratisation in the late 1980s, Taiwan has been seen as a well-functioning democracy and attracted observers from around the globe. This year was no exception, with a number of Chinese influencers with millions of online followers having been invited to observe the presidential race.

Wang Zhi`an: An Unwelcomed Outlier

Among these observers was Wang Zhi`an, a Chinese investigative journalist. He was an unexpected visitor as he was not invited by any of the political parties. In China, Wang is well known for his blunt interviewing style. Perhaps for that reason, he was censored and blacklisted in 2019. Amongst other investigations, he exposed sensitive issues, such as government corruption and medical malpractice. He has been living in exile in Japan since 2020 and began commenting on issues about China from there.

During his visit to Taiwan, Wang interviewed a number of voters and visited election rallies of the three parties participating in the presidential race. He was also invited to a TV show called “the Night Night Show with Hello” to share his perception of the elections. Contrary to most observers who endorsed the Taiwanese election process, Wang adopted a critical and cynical attitude towards the elections and the nature of Taiwanese democracy. His controversial opinions triggered fierce responses and sparked a heated public debate.

Critics of Abuse of Sympathy

During the TV show, Wang argued that the party campaigns leading up to the elections were more of an entertainment show rather than a serious political endeavour. In particular, Wang condemned the DPP’s use of disabled persons, such as Chen Chun-han, a DDP legislator who lived with spinal muscular atrophy, to gain sympathy. Wang accused the DPP of exploiting him as a mere “prop” in its political campaign. Chen died on February 11, 2024, after a common cold, which put even more spotlight on Wang’s accusations.

Contrasting Understandings of Democracy

Wang’s criticism regarding the nature of Taiwanese elections reflects a broader understanding of democracy in mainland Chinese society. Therefore, some observers who opposed Wang’s viewpoints argue that his comments reflected China’s lack of democratic experience and failed to be anchored in reality. Wang sees “unruly democratic movements” and the use of public emotion for political gains, including as part of rallies and election campaigns, as undesirable. In Chinese media, democratic practices in Taiwan are being portrayed as a populist revelry with emotional campaigns that fail to reflect genuine democratic values. This narrative has been repeatedly framed to justify the superiority of the Chinese system with meritocracy at its core. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1970s, the idea of meritocracy, which is based on selection rather than election, has been applied in China as a preferred type of social governance. But in fact it dates back to Confucian roots. The concept of “Western democracy”, on the other hand, has been criticised by Chinese state-run media for being a “one time off democracy.” As such, “Western democracy” is perceived as merely benefiting irresponsible political leaders who perform well by flattering audiences. Moreover, within the context of worsening cross-Strait ties, Taiwanese democracy is being portrayed as a political manipulation to provoke anti-Chinese sentiment and separatist movements.

The Widening Identity Gap

Another debate that arose during the talk show concerned the word ‘Shina’ (支那), a post-war derogatory name for Chinese. This debate revealed significant divergences in the perceptions of historical experiences and definitions of ‘China’ and its identity across the Strait.

Shina was used by the Japanese to stigmatise Chinese people during the Second World War. Over the years, Taiwanese society has developed a discursive system to create a new identity. At present, some Taiwanese independence activists use the word to refer to mainland Chinese and distance themselves from China. In his interview, Wang rejected the use of ‘Shina’ and instead supported the  perspective that Taiwan and China as have a shared identity.

The Government’s Response

The Taiwanese government issued a 5-year travel ban on Wang in response to his statements. In the aftermath, Wang also formally apologised to Chen for his behaviour and for imitating him, as well as for saying “disabled people” which is considered a derogatory term in Taiwan. However, behind the polemics is a widening gap between the two sides of the Strait and an emerging ideological confrontation.

Out of dissatisfaction with the DDP and the current state of democracy in Taiwan, a group of Taiwanese and foreign influencers supported Wang’s views. Wang’s rhetoric, therefore, underscored not only a growing gap between the two societies but the complex divisions within them. This is particularly visible in the case of their perspectives on the democratic system, national identity, and treatment of mainland Chinese. As geopolitical tensions rise, these differences might leave an irreconcilable gap.

Enduring Contradictions

The increasing cross-Strait tensions and debates in China about Taiwan’s democracy reached a peak following the DDP administration’s travel ban on Wang. Supporters, such as other invited overseas observers, claim that Wang deserved it due to his ableism and his alleged pro-authoritarian stance. However, those who sympathise with him argue that the DDP is not tolerating critics, thus undermining the inclusiveness of Taiwanese society and the very democratic values it is meant to stand for.

Wang’s visit to Taiwan attracted extensive attention in the global Chinese community. His personal experience presents a unique perspective through which to explore the cross-Strait relationship. He was punished by Beijing for his outspokenness and expelled from Taipei for his critical thinking on Taiwan’s democracy. There are not many people in the world who have been banned from both mainland China and Taiwan. His predicament highlights complex and enduring contradictions. These include tensions between a unified Chinese identity and an emerging independent narrative in Taiwan; authoritarian politics and democracy; and the interventions of external forces in the midst of this geopolitical rivalry.

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