Censors in China have been busy since Saturday after Taiwan held yet another free and democratic election. Despite a government firewall on the internet designed to control what passes for truth, many Chinese citizens offered rare and favorable commentary about the election. For a brief time, the #TaiwanElection hashtag was No. 11 among trending topics on social media – before being deleted.
One internet user noted that the Chinese Communist Party can hardly criticize the outcome of the election “when you don’t even allow elections at home.” Another netizen wrote, “We would only get such an intense battle when electing our class captain [in high school].”
This brief expression of interest in Taiwan’s democracy is the latest example of a public hungry for transparent and accurate information in a country where even basic statistics about the economy have lately been censored. Another example is the rise of “citizen historians” who have challenged the party’s account of past atrocities and even its claim to rule without opposition. Economy watchers have learned how to use available data, such as of urban pollution and night-light density, to challenge the party’s often dubious claims on national development.
“Resistance in China is more persistent and sustained than many people realize,” China expert Ian Johnson told Psychology Today this month. “The fact that there are still people … fighting for a more open, tolerant society shows that the roots of opposition in China run deep and are harder to wipe out than many people anticipate.”
The level of opposition is difficult to detect because independent polling is mostly banned in China. Widespread fear of reprisal prevents people from speaking freely to pollsters. Yet one unusual survey technique, in which people express sensitive opinions indirectly, was used by the University of Southern California to gauge what people really think about their rulers.
The survey, conducted online with two groups of 2,000 each and published this month in The China Quarterly, found that support for the party and China’s system of government may be as low as 50%. The government’s surveillance of the internet and repression of dissent discourages some 40% of citizens from participating in anti-regime protests.
“There are truths that I believe Chinese citizens have the right to know,” one Chinese banker told The New Yorker last year. “We’ve all been educated to say, ‘Better to keep our mouths shut.’ But this is wrong. When information doesn’t flow, the whole country will go backward.”
Ordinary Chinese citizens, wrote Mr. Johnson in Foreign Affairs, “may increasingly be ready to question the official narratives,” especially about China’s history, “and develop new understandings of the forces that are shaping the country’s present and its future.”