Tea Leaf Nation

Democracy is Contagious

What message does civil unrest in Hong Kong send to the rest of China?

Want a simple method for understanding top-level decision-making in China? Assume that the decision was made with the end goal of keeping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power. While imperfect, it's the easiest way to explain why the CCP does what it does. It also offers a simple grading system for China news: the more a story touches on issues that threaten the survival of the party -- corruption, rural discontent, democracy movements, fissures in the CCP  -- the more crucial they are to Beijing. 

That's why the seemingly mundane updating of Hong Kong election rules -- which curb democracy in Hong Kong -- is a hugely important story. On Aug. 31 the National People's Congress, Beijing's rubber-stamp parliament, announced its long-awaited official position of candidates for Hong Kong's chief executive: a nominating committee loyal to Beijing must first approve them, and only two or three will be allowed to run in the next election, in 2017. The announcement, which if implemented would effectively bar opposition candidates from appearing on the ballot, led to protests by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. 

Beijing is demonstrating its dominance over Hong Kong. In 1982, during negotiations over the fate of the then British colony, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reportedly told British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the Chinese could easily take Hong Kong by force: "I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon," Deng said. Thatcher replied, "There is nothing I could do to stop you," she said, "but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like." Beijing had promised that Hong Kong, which returned to the mainland in 1997, would be eligible for "universal suffrage" by the 2017 elections; it now appears to be breaking that promise. Like Deng's 1982 statement, Beijing's decision is a reminder of who calls the shots in Hong Kong, international opprobrium be damned. 

International opinion about China -- which has a much smaller effect on the CCP's ability to maintain power -- matters far less to Beijing than domestic opinion. And while Beijing is trying to communicate that it has Hong Kong firmly under control, discontent in Hong Kong could send a worrying message to people throughout China.

The implicit social contract between the CCP and the Mainland citizens it governs is that in exchange for relinquishing their rights to meaningfully participate in politics, Beijing will ensure economic prosperity and national revival. 

Hong Kong tests that assumption: under what Beijing calls "one country, two systems," the 7.2 million citizens of Hong Kong, while part of China, are granted far more leeway in freedom of assembly and speech than their compatriots on the mainland. Its citizens enjoy a per capita income of nearly $40,000, great schools, extremely low tax rates, and some of the best social services and healthcare in Asia, if not the world. If even Hong Kongers chafe under Mainland rule, then doesn't a student in Beijing or a day laborer in the northwest region of Xinjiang have a far more legitimate cause to complain and protest?  

Choosing the opposite strategy, and placating Hong Kong by allowing it to choose its own chief executive, could lead to too many nightmarish scenarios for the CCP. Hong Kongers could elect someone who made important policy decisions without consulting Beijing, or someone who enacted policies that made Beijing uncomfortable. Even worse, what if the people of Hong Kong elected someone who wanted to declare independence from the Mainland? That would be catastrophic for a leadership obsessed with China's territorial integrity. Better for Beijing to prevent fair elections now -- that's far easier than deposing a popularly elected leader or managing an independence movement. 

Furthermore, democracy is contagious. If Beijing allowed Hong Kongers universal suffrage, it would be more difficult to argue that other parts of China didn't deserve it. Already, there are grumblings in the nearby region of Macau, whose roughly 600,000 citizens enjoy a similar amount of freedom to those in Hong Kong. If a similar movement emerged on the Mainland, this would be far more worrying for the CCP. "What if Shenzhen, which is not far away from Hong Kong, also asked for the same thing?" Ding Xueliang, a professor of Political Science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, mused to Bloomberg.

Beijing could crack down on Hong Kong, but it needs to be careful not to push too hard -- that risks alienating the majority of Hong Kongers who aren't bothered by the status quo. More importantly, Beijing is very wary of the message communicated to Taiwan, the self-governing island of roughly 23 million people claimed by China. For decades, Beijing's paramount foreign policy goal has been the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland. Probably the most likely way for that to happen would be a situation similar to Hong Kong -- whereby Taiwanese would enjoy significant autonomy and a wide range of political freedoms. But the more Hong Kongers suffer, the more difficult it will be for the CCP to make the case that Taiwanese should voluntarily join the mainland.

To be sure, troubles in Hong Kong at this stage are far from an existential threat to the CCP. But Beijing will want to handle this very carefully. 

--with research by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian



Tea Leaf Nation

China's Most Popular Government Feed

China's anti-vice campagin does clickbait on social media better than you think.

The Chinese government institution with the biggest social media following goes to...the nationwide anti-vice campaign called "Strike the four blacks, Eliminate the four harms." Da Sihei, Chu Sihai in Mandarin, the four blacks and four harms are: workshops that make counterfeit or tainted drugs and food; factories that produce fake or pirated goods; black markets that sell stolen products; and black dens of gambling, prostitution and drugs. The three-year-old account on China's Twitter Sina Weibo celebrated its anniversary on Aug. 28 with a media get-together in Beijing attended by the country's top cops, including the chief of domestic security Meng Jianzhu. It's just a Weibo feed, but Meng was effusive. "To become the first government body in the country to attract more than 10 million followers on Sina Weibo is not an easy task and is something to celebrate," Meng said. He urged his law and order colleagues to develop more social media brands in the "Dasihei" mold.

That's a tall order. Part of the secret to the account's success is that it's unexpectedly full of clickbait. Dasihei's posts are a mix of facepalm-inducing crime blotter snippets from around China, public service announcements and tributes to heroic or fallen police. One post put up on the account's anniversary was about a 10-year-old boy in the southern city of Guiyang who cut the safety rope of a construction worker outside his apartment because the man's drilling had interrupted his cartoons. The worker clung to the outside of the boy's eighth floor apartment for forty minutes before being rescued. And Dasihei doesn't just post news like this. It also needles readers for feedback. In the case of the cartoon boy, readers were invited to express their opinions about the kid's behavior: predictably, the readers who responsed were outraged.

Other recent tweets include a tearjerker about a six-year-old autistic boy abandoned at the gate of a welfare center in south China's Sichuan province, and a cautionary shocker about a 53-year-old driver who was sentenced to a year in jail after she killed a person on a scooter by opening the door of her car. Heartbreaking photos of the boy at the gate accompanied the first story and a series of cringe-worthy videos of scooters getting nailed by car doors accompanied the latter. Public service-type posts include one from Aug. 28 that gives women seven illustrated tips on how not to fall victim to a gypsy cab rapist or murderer. A sampling: always sit in the back seat, don't give your phone number to the driver and leave the window open for ventilation to prevent being drugged.

Given the content, the public security celebration of Dasihei seems a little off-color. But Meng is probably smart to spotlight his successes when he can. His former boss Zhou Yongkang is in the grip of a massive graft probe that can't help but make Meng nervous. And President Xi Jinping has urged government officials to be more plainspoken, more in touch with the ordinary people and to get up to speed on social media. The Dasihei anniversary event made it look like Meng was meticulously toeing the Xi line, and perhaps also tap dancing as fast as he can. (Xi himself doesn't maintain a Weibo presence but there has been speculation that his team could be behind the "Study Xi Fan Club," an account that has 2 million followers and faithfully tracks his activities.) The deputy minister of public security, Huang Ming, told assembled media at the anniversary event that since its launch, Dasihei has generated 16,000 posts, including 5,500 so far this year, with 250 million shares and 950,000 comments. He said the account had been rated both the top government agency feed and the top government ministry feed by Weibo users.

But it's hardly the overall Weibo leader. It's still a government feed after all. Olympic diver turned actor Tian Liang and Beijing law professor Xu Xin both have more than 14 million followers. Jason Ng, author of "Blocked On Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China's Version of Twitter (And Why)" told Foreign Policy that one key to Dasihei's popularity could be that new Weibo users are being prompted to follow the feed along with other promoted public service feeds when they first create their accounts. "It's a tactic that is indeed used to pump up the numbers of other governmental/public security accounts," he said. While 10 million is "nothing to sneeze at," Ng added, it's far from a Weibo heavyweight. Even state-run media accounts like People's Daily and CCTV have far more fans than Dasihei, with 24 million and 22 million followers, respectively.

And Dasihei has its critics. Wen Yunchao, a New York-based Chinese blogger and free speech advocate, told Foreign Policy that he finds the political rhetoric on accounts like Dasihei "extremely disgusting." "I don't follow accounts like that and, if there is a worthwhile piece of news on it, I know that the people I do follow will steer it my way." Still, others are more welcoming of any Chinese government experimentation in the realm of public relations. Social media is a big challenge for a system that many see as opaque and unresponsive. One Weibo user tweeting under the handle "Seeking Justice_86119," in Baotou, an industrial city in north China's Inner Mongolia region, replied to Meng's celebratory remarks with words of encouragement. "I support you," wrote the man and addressed Meng directly as he described the hard time that ordinary Chinese have in getting their grievances to the right official. He said there were all kinds of bureaucratic roadblocks between citizens and the central government. "Using new media can bypass those channels," he said, proving his point with his tweet. Whether Meng is reading, however, is another question.  

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