Democracy Lab

Nationality: Democrat

Democracy and identity politics aren't mutually exclusive. But don't try telling that to the Chinese Communist Party.

In December, a Hong Kong sociologist by the name of Robert Chung found himself at the center of a political storm. A study commissioned by Chung, director of opinion research at a leading university in the territory, discovered that the number of people who identify themselves primarily as citizens of Hong Kong was higher than it's been for the past 10 years. The survey showed that the number of those who viewed themselves as Chinese had fallen to 16.6 percent. That's a 12-year low and less than half of what it was three years ago.

Since then the territory's communist press has launched a vicious attack on the pollster. "Political fraudster" and "a slave of dirty political money" are just two of the Cultural Revolution style epithets trotted out against Professor Chung. Hao Tiechuan, a Beijing official stationed in Hong Kong, called in local reporters to denounce Professor Chung's work as "unscientific" and "illogical."

Beijing, always wary of Hong Kong's loyalty because of its colonial heritage, ratchets up the rhetoric even higher during "election" season. In March, 1200 mostly pro-Beijing loyalists will choose the next chief executive, and in September, Hong Kong citizens will go to the polls to choose 35 of 70 seats in the partially-democratic legislature. Last fall, pro-Beijing candidates won local district-level polls overwhelmingly, although an investigation has been opened into possible vote-rigging. Beijing's attacks on Professor Chung-- as well as on a so-called "Gang of Four" of prominent democracy advocates -- may be calculated to keep the minions who choose the chief executive in line and dampen turnout by the solid majority of Hong Kong voters who favor progress toward full democracy.

But Beijing's fury reflects a much deeper problem for the Party: any list of factors contributing to the development of a distinct identity among Hong Kong people would have to include civil liberties, independent courts, press freedom, and political parties. When Beijing concluded negotiations on Hong Kong's return with the British, it promised a "high degree of autonomy" and agreed that democracy was the "ultimate aim." Beijing, however, gave itself the right to interpret these terms, and since reassuming control of the territory it has repeatedly pushed back the date when Hong Kong people might choose their leader and legislature.

Hong Kong's people have energetically defended their civil and political liberties. To Beijing's chagrin, that includes holding demonstrations held each year on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule. In 2003, a massive march, estimated at 500,000, defeated plans to enact legislation outlawing subversion according to Article 23 of the Beijing-drafted Basic Law -- "a people's victory over their Hong Kong puppet government and the dictatorial Chinese Communist Party," Liu Xiaobo wrote in a 2007 essay, recently republished in a collection of his essays and poems. An uptick in the number of protestors at last summer's July 1 demonstration has been attributed at least in part to opposition to the government's proposal to do away with by-elections. The proposal, which would allow the runner-up to take over a vacated seat, was a transparent attempt to punish several pro-democracy legislators who resigned their seats in order to run again in a self-styled "referendum on democracy." They won. Now that Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is himself imprisoned on subversion charges, his face appears on posters at the annual commemoration of the 1989 massacre of democracy protesters.

Hong Kong isn't the only place where the Party faces a burgeoning identity linked to democratic values and institutions. For decades, Taiwan was a higher priority for the Party than Hong Kong, much of which was automatically supposed to revert to mainland rule under leases that expired in 1997. In fact, the "the one country, two systems" model that has been applied to Hong Kong was originally designed with Taiwan in mind. When President Carter broke relations with Taipei and withdrew U.S. troops, Beijing hoped that Taiwan could be enticed, or coerced, into unification with the mainland.

So far, that has not happened -- and not only because the U.S. Congress established de facto diplomatic relations with Taipei and committed the U.S. to help Taiwan defend itself. Taiwanese, too, have developed their own distinct identity tied to democracy. Polls show a steady climb in the percentage of people who consider themselves "Taiwanese." At first, some observers claimed that the growing sense of a distinct Taiwanese identity was artificial, the result of campaigns by pro-independence politicians seeking electoral advantage in a population sharply divided between relative newcomers from the mainland and the native Taiwanese population. In fact, according to Melissa J. Brown, a cultural anthropologist and the author of Is Taiwan Chinese?, those politicians "merely articulated and emphasized a change in Taiwanese identity that had been developing" in the years since Taiwan embraced democracy. Despite their different policies on relations with China, today both of Taiwan's major political parties consider democracy a non-negotiable element of any resolution of the island's fate.

Perhaps worse, from Beijing's perspective, as Shelley Rigger, a political scientist at Davidson College writes, Taiwanese people's "commitment to democracy is stronger than their determination to achieve a particular outcome." A civic identity that prioritizes democracy is an existential threat to the Chinese Communist Party, which peddles a brand of nationalism based on chauvinism, xenophobia, and great power pretentions.

The democratic identity developing among Tibetans in exile is also a challenge for Beijing. Communist propaganda presents the Dalai Lama as an "evil splittist," the representative of a backward, aristocratic elite from which the Party has emancipated the long-suffering Tibetans. In fact, the Tibetan spiritual leader long ago abandoned independence as a goal, opting instead for "genuine autonomy" within the People's Republic. He has led the India-based Tibetan government in exile through a democratic transition. Last March, he completed the project by separating his religious duties from his political ones, turning over the latter to a prime minister elected by eligible voters among Tibetan exiles in South Asia, Europe, and the United States. The Dalai Lama has said that whether the institution of the Dalai Lama continues is up to Tibetans, and he pursues dialogue with ordinary Chinese citizens. All of this is extremely threatening to Beijing, which, upon the current Dalai Lama's death, is planning to install its own puppet ruler in Tibet through "guidelines on reincarnation" that emphasize "patriotism" and "love of the motherland."

Professor Chung, the Hong Kong sociologist, has declined to speculate on the reasons behind the change in attitudes among citizens of the territory. He did point out, perhaps wryly, that "Cultural Revolution-style curses and defamations, no matter at whom they are directed, are not conducive to the building of Chinese national identity among Hong Kong people."

Certainly, attitudes fluctuate for a variety of reasons. Professor Chung's statistics over the years show a higher identification with the mainland during events that might stir feelings of pride and belonging, such as the 1997 return to Chinese rule or the Beijing Olympics. On the flip side, Hong Kongers harbor resentment about the influx of mainlanders who push up property values, or take advantage of rules granting residence to mainland babies born in Hong Kong. Ill-mannered tourists are another source of irritation, and an ad taken out in a leading newspaper denouncing them as "locusts" exacerbated tensions. (The man in the photo above is demonstrating against plans to allow mainland drivers to enter Hong Kong in their cars.) On the other hand, some mainlanders come to the territory each year to participate in the June 4 march that commemorates the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Beijing's "candidates" for the chief executive post, Henry Tang and C.Y. Leung, are stepping gingerly through the minefield of Hong Kong identity politics. Both criticized a mainland TV talk show diatribe by Kong Qingdong, a Beijing University professor who claims direct descent from Confucius, a favorite Communist Party apologist. Hong Kong people, according to Professor Kong, "got accustomed to being "running dogs for British imperialists.... They are still dogs.... They are not human." Dog-walking protesters promptly turned up at Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.

Tang and Leung, however, are both in a bind. As supplicants for Hong Kong's top job, they can ape the mainland's values and lose the ability to govern, or stand up for Hong Kong's values and institutions and lose Beijing's backing. It's a dilemma that will become more, not less, problematic for them -- as well as their patrons in the Communist Party.



So You Want to Be Jerusalem Bureau Chief…

How to tackle -- and not tackle -- the most delicate assignment in journalism.

Even before she gets to Israel, Jodi Rudoren, the new New York Times bureau chief, is already explaining why she'd prefer not having "Zionist" attached to her name.

And to a Jewish reporter at a pro-Israel website, no less.

Rudoren, whom I've never met, should know this: It could be worse.

Instead of telling Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon why she's not a Zionist, she could be explaining why she'd prefer not having "Jewish" attached to her name.

It's happened.

Abe Rosenthal, the paper's legendary executive editor, may have favored David Shipler for the post in 1979 not just because of his eye-catching reportage from Saigon and Moscow, but because he also thought he was ending the paper's ban on sending Jewish reporters to the region. As Rosenthal subsequently learned some time after making the assignment, Shipler is not, in fact, Jewish.*

Rosenthal's determination to end the ban finally came to fruition in 1984, when Shipler ended his tour and was replaced with Tom Friedman.

The bizarre circumstances of the Shipler tale -- couldn't Rosenthal have used the typical devices ("So, where are you going for the seder?") that assess Jewdar before he made the decision? -- bespeaks the fraught relationship the Old Gray Lady has with the Old Testament's People.

The Sulzbergers, the longtime owners of the Times, were famously nervous during World War II about reporting the Holocaust, often burying revelations of its horrors on its inside pages.

"Deep down, my father probably would just have soon not have been Jewish," Judith Sulzberger is quoted as saying in The Trust, the authoritative biography of the newspaper by Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the wartime owner who banned the use of phrases like the "Jewish people."

That reluctance had momentous consequences: Then, as now, what appeared on the Times's front page often determined the news agenda for competitors and wire services.

The late Daniel Schorr, who started out as a writer and then a desk editor with my employer, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, bailed for the mainstream media in part because he could no longer stand to read the horrors coming across the JTA wire, edit, and relay them to subscribers (among them the Times, at the time) -- and then, see nothing make the papers.

The ambivalence persists to this day. Tifft and Jones gleefully chronicle how, depending on who is pissing him off and why, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the current chairman, will bark that you know what, he's Jewish, or you know what, he's not. (He's an Episcopalian, albeit one with Jewish ancestry.)

So, following the lead of Arthur O., or "Pinch," here are some rough rules for Times bureau chiefs (and other journalists) for navigating the world's most delicate reporting assignment:

1. Polish that Sunday school Hebrew

It helps. The close 1996 elections, pitting Shimon Peres against Benjamin Netanyahu, were close enough that it took from Tuesday poll closing to Friday afternoon to make the official call. On Friday morning, I was staking out Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv with a bunch of other journalists, waiting for word that could translate into a news alert for my then-employer, the Associated Press.

Netanyahu's spokesman emerged and said, in English, sorry, we still can't call it, and then in Hebrew, for the Israeli press: Come inside, I've got news for you.

The Reuters reporter and I gave each other a quick "Can this guy be this stupid?" look and followed them inside the building.

Netanyahu was by that point sure he would win (he did) and he wanted the Israeli reporters to get the news out before the Jewish Sabbath cut off a significant portion of the country from news broadcasts. Instead, Reuters and AP were the first to have the alerts.

I'm being a little unfair to the spokesman; until around the mid-1980s, it had been a point of honor among most foreign correspondents not to speak Hebrew. The wires were first to wise up and hire locals who could speak the language. Soon the major dailies followed, and then by the 2000s it was no longer unusual for foreign hires to be familiar with the language. (There was never any such reluctance, as far as I can tell, with Arabic.)

2. But don't show it off

There has persisted among foreign correspondents, at least until recent years, a stigma associated with the notion that once in your pre-journalist existence you might have become conversant with the language of the Torah.

I covered Israel's 1993 mini-war against Hezbollah for the AP. After each Katyusha rocket hit, packs of journalists would pile into cars and head for the corners of the Israeli north to get the color and quotes.

The hardest hit town was Kiryat Shemona, a onetime magnet for North African Jews that was not exactly abundant in English speakers. I arrived at the semi-destroyed apartment building at the same time as a couple of foreign correspondents for the majors -- one Jewish, one not.

When it became clear that no one among the families sorting through the rubble could speak English, the non-Jew asked me if I could translate. I looked at the Jewish one and she nodded: Could you please help us out?

This was nutty: I knew the Jewish one had started, like I did, as a local hire valued for her Hebrew fluency. She'd gone back to the States, and had now returned as a Foreign Correspondent, capital F and C. Clearly, she was discomfited by the notion that her buds might find out that she actually knew what was going on. I shrugged and translated.

It's not just a matter of fears of being perceived as going native, which dog FCs wherever they're placed; there is a deeper ambivalence about being a foreign Jew in the Jewish state.

A few years later -- I won't say exactly when to spare the Times correspondent embarrassment -- I was among a gaggle of full-fledged FCs (and I was now one myself) at a stakeout. It was slow; the day was hot. Talk turned to office gossip and then to kids: What were the best schools? One Canadian correspondent said she had opted for the Israeli school system, because the one in her neighborhood was excellent, and she planned on placing her child in a Jewish school in Toronto when she returned.

The Times correspondent, who was Jewish, was appalled: "If that's what you want for him," the correspondent said.

There are times, however, when the Hebrew-school memories creep back, and in poignant ways. On a bitingly cold night in December 1993, a gaggle of reporters huddled in the courtyard of Jerusalem's Great Synagogue, waiting for the funeral cortege of Mordechai Lapid, a settler murdered in a drive-by attack, to leave for Hebron. (Lapid died in the arms of Baruch Goldstein, a physician who months later would massacre 29 Muslim worshippers at the Hebron mosque.)

As the mourner's Kaddish broke over the loudspeakers, I heard a thin voice muttering along with it. I looked to my side; it was a visibly moved Clyde Haberman, then the Times correspondent.

3. Be careful, or folks won't talk to you

Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic and Shmuel Rosner at the Los Angeles Jewish Journal are already wondering whether Rudoren has done herself in with her Twitter-shmoozing with anti-Israel activists Ali Abunimah and Philip Weiss.

"What she will not be able to do is to have good sources at the very top -- at the offices of government in which people are already quite suspicious of the Times and will now be even more suspicious," Rosner writes. "Wouldn't you be? With these people she's probably toast, and without them she can't be as good as a NYT Jerusalem reporter could be."

There may be something to this.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, reportedly regards the state's two top enemies as the New York Times and Haaretz. His top aide, Ron Dermer, took delight recently in leaking to the Jerusalem Post his letter to the Times's management explaining why no, the prime minister would rather not publish op-eds in that paper's sullied pages.

It didn't help that Friedman, now the paper's foreign-policy columnist, recently seemed to veer into Jew-baiting territory when he said applause for Netanyahu in Congress had been "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."

4. Please, this is the Jewish state

Nobody stops talking.

Laura King, the venerable Los Angeles Times correspondent, likes to tell of the shock of transition when AP moved her from Tokyo to Jerusalem. Vox populi coverage was simply a no-go in Japan, she told me. In Israel, you were barely out of the office before passersby were opining.

Notably, Deborah Sontag, whose critical coverage for the Times often rankled the Israeli establishment, got an exclusive a dinner invitation from Ehud Barak, the prime minister, in 1999. He played the piano for her. It holds true now as it did in the 1940s: The Times still sets the agenda. There are few more efficacious ways of getting out your side of the story.

Rudoren has it right: After the Free Beacon "exposed" her as not being a Zionist, she tweeted: "Folks: What I told @freebeacon re whether I'm a Zionist was simple: the only 'ist' I use to describe self is ‘journalist.'"

She may yet get this Twitter thing down.

*This paragraph has been edited from its earlier version. The original version mistakenly stated that Rosenthal "made it clear" that Shipler was selected for the post because he was Jewish, and that Shipler later explained to him that he was not, in fact, Jewish. In fact, Rosenthal never made an announcement of that sort, and Shipler's religious background became clear during an editorial meeting months later, not in an explanation that he offered Rosenthal.

Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images