Is China scared of a few sunflowers? Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images
Is China scared of a few sunflowers? Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

Several hundred students stormed and occupied Taiwan’s national legislature on March 18 over objections to a new trade agreement with China, which they claimed was railroaded through the legislative process. One week later they remain in the chambers, supported by thousands of protestors, and an influential coterie of Chinese celebrities (other protesters were violently evicted from the government’s executive offices on Monday), blocking a vote on the pact. Inadvertently, perhaps, they also now serve as the Chinese state media’s most recent example of what happens when democracies go bad.

Recently, it’s a well-worn beat in China. Unrest in Egypt and the Ukraine -- and the violence and economic disruption they caused -- received blanket coverage in Chinese news media. It drove intense, viral discussion threads on Chinese social media that often viewed such unrest as a cautionary tale and existential threat to China’s substantial economic progress.

Taiwan, of course, is different from Egypt and Ukraine. The Chinese government (and most of its citizens), regards Taiwan as a renegade province destined to return to the mainland’s arms. It is Chinese, just like them. Nonetheless, many outside and inside of China uphold Taiwan’s democracy as a possible template for the Beijing's Communist government as it inevitably transitions to a form of participatory government. Needless to say, not everyone in China -- especially Communist Party members -- appreciates that point of view, and thus the student occupation of the legislature has provided an opportunity to revel in schadenfreude, as well as propaganda.

On Sunday, Pan Xitang, writing for tiahainet.com, a state-owned Taiwan-focused news site in Xiamen, took direct aim at the Democratic Progressive Party, Taiwan’s left-leaning opposition. The DPP, long opposed to re-unification, has denigrated the trade pact and has served as inspiration to the student protestors. More important, in the 1980s the DPP spearheaded the campaign to end one-party rule in Taiwan -- a historical fact that Pan contrasts unsparingly with what he characterizes as the DPP’s support of the protests:

Ironically, DPP once dedicated itself to removing the ban on political parties and made contributions to democracy. Now it abandons the parliamentary route and encourages students to occupy the legislature. It denies the value of the democracy it once advocated.

Needless to say, Pan and his state-owned publication couldn’t give a whit about the value of democracy. But task at hand is undermining whatever positive impressions his readers might have for Taiwanese democracy. That’s not a difficult task at a time when both parties to the cross-straits relationship recognize that Taiwan’s economy has not only stagnated but is increasingly dependent on Chinese growth.

The trade pact, designed to encourage mainland investment in Taiwan’s service sector, would only deepen that relationship, which is what has the DPP and student occupiers worried.China’s editorialists therefore seem to enjoy noting that China can take or leave the agreement because -- unlike Taiwan -- it can worry about matters other than money. “The mainland isn’t concerned with the destiny of the agreement,” sniffed the state-owned Global Times on Monday. “Most people are interested in the problems built into the Taiwanese political system, such as why an economic agreement can set off a movement like the Color Revolution.”

This last reference -- to the mostly nonviolent mid-2000s protests against authoritarian governments in the former Soviet bloc, including Ukraine -- is a not-so-subtle reminder of the weak economic and geopolitical position in which Ukraine finds itself today, having struggled at democracy. Taiwan, to be sure, isn’t nearly so addled. But in comparison to where it was in relation to China in the 1980s and 1990s, when its investments played a key role in financing China’s economic renaissance, it is much reduced. Did democracy play a role in this decline? Probably not. But at the pragmatic Global Times, a paper whose worldview binds economic and political success together, the connection is implicit, and so are the conclusions. An editorial, summarizing the drawbacks of anti-democratic opposition to the hated trade agreement, notes: “It is a foolish and self-marginalizing act to oppose China, the economic engine for Asia and even the world.”

It’s a worldview with widespread support in China and on its social media -- and also among the more pragmatic members of Taiwan’s messy democracy, including President Ma Ying-jeou. Today he agreed to sit down with the protesters and listen to their concerns. This is unlikely to restore the reputation of Taiwanese democracy among mainland Chinese and their press. But it might just serve to remind a few of them that in Taiwan, at least, a political leader doesn’t place himself above meeting with a few hundred disruptive protesters.

To contact the writer of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.