Tea Leaf Nation

Song of Herself

Once again, Australian Open champ Li Na didn't thank her homeland -- and China noticed.

After winning the Australian Open on Jan. 25, Li Na set off a media blitz in her native China, where the 31-year-old tennis star made the front page of most major papers. Much discussion surrounded Li's post-victory speech, where she once again thanked her coach and husband -- but not China -- reigniting debate about what, if anything, she owes her country of origin. While state-run media praised Li's win as a victory for China, many of Li's fans felt that her success had nothing to do with her being Chinese. Some even argued that Li had won the title in spite of it. 

Li previously ruffled government feathers after her first Grand Slam win at the French Open in 2011, when she also declined to thank her homeland. Most Chinese athletes express gratitude to China first, because many have risen to prominence through a state athletic system that selects and trains promising young people with government funds. But in 2008, Li joined with three other tennis players to opt out of that system, which pockets 65 percent of its participants' earnings, as the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) allowed them to "fly solo." It is difficult for Chinese athletes to escape the state system of training, which begins for many in government-run sports schools and controls almost all aspects of their lives after they join. Even Li was required to continue giving 12 percent of her commercial income and eight percent of prize winnings to the CTA after she left the organization.

The independent path Li has taken since 2008 did not stop China's official news outlets from seeking some credit for her most recent triumph. The state-run Global Times emphasized that there were no hard feelings: "Whether or not Li Na said that she 'thanks the motherland,' she's still Chinese," the paper wrote. "Her success itself is the best thanks, the best way to give back to the motherland." This success, Xinhua argued, "would not have been possible without her time on the national team."

But on Chinese social media, where counter-narratives to the official line often thrive, many felt state media were trying to put words in Li's mouth. She "didn't thank the country," wrote one user of Weibo, China's Twitter, "So they've started to thank themselves." Li has acknowledged the help she received from the state system in her younger days, but she took home both of her major Grand Slam tournament titles after striking out on her own. "She's earned the pride of the Chinese people through her success," not her nationality, one commenter argued. "She didn't thank her homeland, but the Chinese people should thank her for her efforts." One user questioned state media's conclusion that Li Na's victory depended on her earlier time inside China's state athletic system. "By this way of thinking," he argued, "Li Na's success also would not have been possible without the roll she ate at her last meal." 

A number of netizens even alleged that the government had done more harm than good for Li. "It's true, without the state's support, Li Na would never have won the championship at 31," wrote one Weibo user. "She might have gotten it at 21." Another felt it was "shameful" that Li had been unable to develop her talents due to "all kinds of government restrictions." To her fans, Li's Australian victory was symbolic of new possibilities in China. "Li Na proves that you can be just as good without the system," commented one on Weibo, "as long as you have the spirit and the will." 

Li herself would likely object to the debate about whether she represents the triumph of the Chinese nation or the Chinese individual. "I really, truly think that I am just an athlete," Li told the New York Times in a 2013 interview. "I can represent nothing but myself."

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Tea Leaf Nation

The Freedom to Say Nothing

Hong Kong journalists have found another way to protest against Beijing's encroachment.

It may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but Hong Kong citizens perceive a gathering storm darkening their windows. When the owner of one of the city's largest newspapers tried to replace the editor-in-chief, its staff and columnists staged a dramatic revolt. The episode is the latest symptom of collective anxiety over the state of free press in this former British colony, more than 16 years after its handover to China.

On Jan. 20, more than 110 staff stood outside the headquarters of Ming Pao, one of Hong Kong's most respected Chinese-language newspapers. Dressed in black, each journalist held up a copy of the paper and solemnly observed a five-and-half minute period of silence in protest against the owner's decision to sack the paper's editor-in-chief, Kevin Lau. On the same day, four of Ming Pao's writers sent in blank columns, also as a form of protest, leaving glaring white spaces in the print edition.

A journalist at Ming Pao, who asked to remain anonymous, told Foreign Policy that the newspaper's senior management has not offered a good reason for Lau's removal. According to the source, many among the staff speculate that it is an attempt to interfere with the newspaper's journalistic independence. The paper's ultimate owner is a Malaysian-Chinese tycoon named Tiong Hiew-King. Ming Pao did not respond to an email seeking comment.

In Hong Kong's noisy media jungle, Ming Pao occupied a clearing in the center that has drawn in the educated middle class. Consistently rated as one of the territory's most trusted papers, it has been careful not to venture too far along either side of pro- and anti-mainland spectrum that divides Hong Kong's print media. Being in the middle does not necessarily indicate neutrality on key issues, but neither does it signal reluctance to report on government wrongdoing. Most recently, in October 2013, the paper published aggressive, wall-to-wall coverage of the controversy over the Hong Kong government's refusal to grant a license to a new cable television operator. Many believe that the decision to withhold the license was made at the behest of Beijing. Ming Pao's approach in that story showed that its journalists stood in defense of Hong Kong's freedom of media, a core value that the self-governing territory holds dear because it sets it apart from mainland China. 

Ming Pao's owner, Tiong, plans to helicopter in fellow Malaysian-Chinese Chong Tien Siong, a former editor of a Chinese language newspaper in Malaysia, to head the newspaper. According to the unnamed Ming Pao journalist, all available indicators point to Chong being “pro-Beijing” and not knowing much about Hong Kong’s local affairs. While senior management gave reassurance that Ming Pao’s editorial independence would be left alone after the switch, the staff remain skeptical.

For their part, Hongkongers cannot seem to shake the nagging suspicion that the Chinese government is using all the tools at its disposal to control media in the territory. The cable license denial and the Ming Pao editor change are but two examples. On Jan. 14, the founder of am730, a free daily newspaper in Hong Kong, revealed that several mainland Chinese companies abruptly pulled approximately $1.2 million worth of advertising from the newspaper in November 2013, likely acting on orders from above in retaliation against the pro-democracy positions of am730's writers. A Hong Kong publisher working on a book on Chinese President Xi Jinping was reportedly arrested in China in November 2013. 

At Hong Kong's handover to the mainland in 1997, the Chinese government promised to keep Hong Kong's existing institutions intact for 50 years. But less than a third of the way in, denizens already fear that much of what has made the territory special will be lost.