Tea Leaf Nation

Occupy This

Chinese are not happy with recent Taiwanese protests against a trade pact with the mainland.

After Taiwan's January 2012 presidential election, many Chinese Internet users came down with a case of democracy-envy, as their cultural cousins seemed to enjoy the luxury of free speech, orderly voting, and the power to change their government. Chinese Internet users certainly liked the winner: Ma Ying-jeou, the handsome incumbent belonging to the Kuomintang (KMT) party who favored closer relationships with mainland China. Chinese social media tracked Ma and electoral opponent Tsai's every move, and many users compared the humility of the Taiwanese campaigners with the arrogance often seen in largely unaccountable Chinese officials. Even outside observers have held up Taiwan's democratic institutions -- which have supported five presidential elections, generally free expression of political opinions, and have survived a number of street protests involving hundreds of thousands of people -- as a potential model for China's future. But now, in the wake of recent protests, Chinese mainlanders are questioning whether all this democracy is worth the trouble.

Taiwan's reputation seems to have suffered a particular hit in Chinese eyes after college-age students began to occupy Taiwan's legislature on March 18. The move followed a KMT effort to use its legislative majority to push through a free trade agreement with mainland China, known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), without debating it item by item. On the evening of March 23, the movement saw a major escalation when hundreds of students broke into the Executive Yuan, the seat of Taiwan's cabinet, after Ma refused to meet protester demands to annul the CSSTA in its current form. Video footage showed ransacked offices with broken windows, furniture, and computers. Hours later, riot police armed with batons and water cannons forcibly evicted hundreds of protesters from the Executive Yuan. (As of this article's publication, protesters continue to occupy the legislature.)

To many mainland observers consigned to observing Taiwan through the looking glass -- one shaped by history, distance, and the inevitable effect of propaganda that praises China's status quo -- the whole controversy over the CSSTA is evidence that democratic institutions in Taiwan are failing. Chen Min, a noted Chinese liberal who uses the penname Xiaoshu and is currently banned from Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging platform, wrote from a friend's account that he believes the movement had "exceeded its original intention" when the leaders sought to use what he called "violence" to annul the CSSTA instead of pursuing legal means. Chen added that Taiwan's democratic institutions should be carefully protected because they represent the "highest level of democratic achievement in a society with Chinese culture." A teacher at Jinan University, a research university in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, described Taiwanese authorities as a "black box" -- a critique Chinese often direct at their Communist government -- who were using  "violence to counter violence," finally questioning what Taiwan has to show for its political system. A young historian using the pen name Ya Shalong also defended the Taiwanese right to protest, but called the occupation of Taiwan's legislature "a different matter" because he believed it was a "violation of rule of law and a breakdown of democracy."   

The judgment of many Chinese is inevitably colored by widespread resentment against what many see as Taiwanese rejection of the mainland, its closest cultural cousin and most significant trading partner. A popular explainer on Chinese social media about the CSSTA, which has been shared over 18,000 times, describes it as a major concession by the mainland. Xu Qinduo, a host on a state-owned radio station, wrote on Weibo that he wanted China to "call off the CSSTA," asking why the mainland needs "to put its hot cheeks against Taiwan's cold buttocks." An attorney named Duan Wanjin agreed, asking why the mainland, which made "many economic concessions in the CSSTA," received "only accusations and anger in exchange."

Prompted by the recent protests, Chinese web users are now digging around for further evidence of Taiwanese disrespect. "Tea egg," a hashtag lately used over 7.7 million times on Weibo, refers to a televised August 2011 episode of a Taiwan food show in which guest Gao Zhibin, from Taiwan's Ministry of Labor, claimed that many mainland Chinese could not afford to buy tea eggs, an inexpensive Chinese snack. Also widely circulating on Chinese social media is a video that shows a Taiwanese student leader addressing protesters of the recent occupation, one of many to do so. The speaker warns that if the CSSTA were passed, the Taiwanese would become like China's Uighurs, an ethnic minority that has a tense relationship with Beijing and the majority Han, frequently suffering crackdowns at the behest of central authorities. The speaker made numerous false claims -- at one point he avers, incredibly, that 450,000 18-year-old Uighur girls are sent to the (nonexistent) southwest coast of China every year -- drawing a predictably angry reaction in the mainland. One Weibo user fumed in response that Taiwanese "have only the mouths but not the ears for democracy."

Mainland backlash against the Taiwanese protests is widespread, but it was not inevitable. Chinese have shown themselves willing to use Taiwan as a foil for self-criticism before; in May 2012, ultra-famous Chinese blogger Han Han thanked Taiwan for "protecting Chinese civilization" along with Hong Kong. But the recent criticism currently coming from Taiwanese, some of whom have averred that they fear China for wanting to "seize our economy by its lifeline," may be too much for the mainland's collective ego to bear. 

Yiqin Fu contributed research. 

Photo: Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

In China, the Confrontation That Wasn't

An easily debunked rumor about Michelle Obama shows the difficulties that U.S. officials face in managing their message there.

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama's weeklong tour of China, with her two daughters and her mother in tow, began on March 20 and has included a stop at the Forbidden City in Beijing, a visit to see the terra-cotta warriors in Xi'an, and a scheduled March 26 visit to pandas in the western province of Sichuan. The White House has stressed that the first lady's official visit will steer clear of political controversy -- unlike earlier tours of China by former U.S. first ladies like Hillary Clinton, who criticized China's human rights record on her 1995 trip, and Laura Bush, who visited the Thailand-Myanmar border in 2008 and urged China to exert pressure on Myanmar's repressive military junta. During her visit, Obama has stayed active on English-language social media by blogging about her sojourn, posting regularly to her Twitter account and answering American children's China-related questions on YouTube. On the Chinese web, she has performed something of a takeover of the popular account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Weibo, China's Twitter, sharing images that include Obama walking along the Great Wall with her daughters and smiling as she takes a toboggan ride. But Obama's charm offensive hasn't been enough to keep the power of politics, or rumor, at bay.

In a March 22 speech at prestigious Peking University in Beijing, Obama dipped her toe ever so lightly in what some might call the political when she expressed firm support for Internet freedom, saying, "We have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard." While Obama's possible jab at Chinese censorship made waves in Western media, something she didn't say has reverberated throughout Weibo. Kong Qingdong, a professor of Chinese studies at Peking University well known for his full-throated support of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on March 23 to his 2.7 million Weibo followers that during Obama's speech, "A female student stood up and asked [Obama], 'Isn't the United States strong because its intelligence agency is listening to the voice of its people? What exactly is the difference between listening and monitoring?'" Kong wrote the U.S. first lady was "rendered speechless," finally replying that she would not discuss politics during her tour.

The apocryphal anecdote -- easily debunked by watching a video of Obama's speech -- has been shared almost 33,000 times, despite its repeated denunciation as false by many of the 9,000 users leaving comments. Commenters are particularly irked by what they see as Chinese web censors' selective enforcement of laws against the spread of "online rumors," under which Internet users responsible for posting falsities shared more than 500 times can face criminal charges, including detention and arrest. In contrast to Kong's post, online speech criticizing public figures such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are usually deleted with great dispatch, and it's likely that a similarly false post about Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan would have been deleted with equal haste. Hu Ling, a reporter with Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media, declared in response to Kong's post, "This is 100 percent rumor. I was there."

Yet Kong's anecdote, while false, has touched a genuine nerve among Chinese web users. A steady stream of revelations about sweeping surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency -- most recently its secret infiltration of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, revealed on March 22 by the New York Times and German newspaper Der Spiegel -- has made Obama's championing of Internet freedom seem somewhat ironic. One user wrote, "Regardless of whether or not a Peking University student asked the question, the logic is still there." Even if the story is apocryphal, he continued, "I wish it were as Professor Kong said, that someone stood up and questioned everything that hegemons do." The editor of Peking University Business Review, who claimed also to be present at Obama's talk, replied, "I wanted to ask [that question] but had no opportunity; I could only ask the people around me. And many people around me were all asking each other."

Photo: Getty Images