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Muted Coverage of Burmese Vote Shows Chinese Unease

As the rest of the world heaps on plaudits, Burma's largest trading partner remains tellingly quiet about its neighbor's first democratic elections in two decades.


While Chinese checkpoints deal with Wednesday’s peak border-traffic as families cross to visit ancestral graves in China for the annual Qingming Festival, Burma’s biggest neighbor and largest trading partner is coming to terms with Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in Sunday’s by-elections.

Chinese national state media has remained largely tight-lipped on the historic poll, while the campaign and elections have been hot topics for liberal media outlets and informal micro-blogs.

China Central Television (CCTV) news, which is broadcast on national and regional channels all over the Asian superpower, reported the results of the by-elections as they were announced by Burmese state media MRTV.

This followed a report by Xinhua Chinese state news agency about the weekend ballot that did not elaborate on any of the details or background. Yet, on March 31, CCTV did broadcast a longer report from its correspondent Wang Yuezhou regarding Burmese media coverage during the by-elections.

Preceding last Sunday’s historic vote, reporters from several major liberal Chinese news outlets—such as Caixin, Dongfang Daily, Southern People, Southern Metropolis Daily and Asia Weekly—joined the torrential flood of foreign journalists traveling to Burma to cover Suu Kyi’s election campaign.

“With such changes happening inside Burma, China’s biggest effort was to preserve a position of non-interference,” said Zhao Gancheng, director of the South Asia Center at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and a frequent commentator on Burmese issues, in an interview with Shenzhen Television on Sunday.

“At the same time, we hope that Burma could preserve its domestic stability,” Zhao added. “It think that the reconciliation in Burma does not harm Chinese interests. China welcomes that Burma can rid itself of international sanctions.

“We have to watch vigilantly. If the United States and other Western countries can use these events to turn Burma into a country, say, serving American geopolitical strategic interests, this will have a negative effect on Chinese relations with Burma.”

Hu Xijin, the influential editor-in-chief of the nationalist daily Global Times, congratulated Burma “on its way toward democracy, gradually leaving behind its past poverty and military rule,” in a tweet on his Sina Weibo micro-blog on Sunday, which has more than 1.9 million followers.

“Some people by praising Burma satirize China, that is ridiculous,” Hu wrote. “Equating democracy with elections is but dogmatic learning by rote. To understand the quality of democracy in a country, it is critical to look at the distance between the people’s will and government policies in that country, and how smoothly these policies can be implemented.”

“It is too early to make Burma an example for China,” Hu concluded in the message, which has been re-tweeted more than 950 times.

“Aung San Suu Kyi won the Burmese elections! Ninty-nine percent voted for her. The other year, Saddam Hussein also got 99 percent,” internet commentator Wang Guangxiong, who works for the online portal Sohu and has 1.1 million followers on his micro-blog, wrote on Monday.

“In my opinion, the first [victory] is because of the power of values, the latter is because of the power of the gun. At last, conscience prevails over weapons.”

Chinese democracy activist Ran Yunfei tweeted about the cheerful reactions at his home when he shared the news of Suu Kyi’s victory. “My daughter screamed: ‘Really! My god!’ My wife said from downstairs: ‘Congratulations to them.’ I just said one sentence: ‘What is there that can’t be done.’”

Ran is a signatory of Nobel Peace Price laureate Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08—calling for democracy in China—who currently works at a government-run publication in Chengdu in the central Chinese province of Sichuan.

Chinese media said that three observers were sent to monitor the Burmese by-elections. According to a source within the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon, these were Ambassador Li Junhua and two other resident diplomats.

One reporter for Time Magazine said she met one of the Chinese diplomats, surnamed Xiong, at a polling station in Kawhmu Township where Suu Kyi won her seat. “So, China is interested in democracy?” she joked. The diplomat simply smiled and walked away.