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China’s Vicarious Democracy Online and In the News

An underpinning of democratic participation may have led to the end of the TV hit "Super Girls" (courtesy Getty Images)

The recent Presidential elections in Taiwan have been a hot topic in Chinese discussion circles, not only due to observations of how differently politicians are treated in democratic Taiwan, but also because access to news of the democratic process down south has been surprisingly unrestrained in both state media and online. Andrew Jacobs of The New York Times reports:

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 marveled 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 often 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.

The widespread news of the Taiwan elections on both blogs and mainstream news sources like Xinhua, is unexpected, given the frequent state suppression of democratic rumblings–even in a strictly apolitical context. The TV show Super Girls, a voter-driven talent show and the subject of Jian Yis documentary Super Girls!, was recently given the ax after numerous successful seasons on air. The reason for the show’s end was ostensibly the program’s questionable ethical content, though many speculated that the show’s audience-driven democratic backbone was to blame for the plug being pulled.

In any case, the unforeseen openness of information regarding the elections in Taiwan is addressed in Jacob’s article:

As is typical for politically sensitive news events, Chinese newspapers were instructed to run only Xinhua’s account of the election, but many editors appeared to make up for such constraints by running banner headlines, splashy graphics and large photographs of a triumphant, rain-soaked president. “No one told us we couldn’t put the election on our front page, so that’s what we did,” one editor of a large daily newspaper said subversively. David Bandurski, a researcher at Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, said the disparity in coverage between the state media and privately owned Internet portals suggested that officials were still unsure how to grapple with a rapidly evolving medium. “The control regime, if you call it that, is still trying to catch up,” he said. “If their approach is too stringent, they risk a blowback.”

Whatever the culture surrounding state news coverage media programming, the blogosphere proves to be a force to be reckoned with, absorbing and proliferating information and creating a truly new kind of dialogue.


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