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Tea Leaves

China's hard power and hurt feelings

No perceived slight is too small for Beijing to start throwing its weight around

Pro-democracy protesters open umbrellas in central Hong Kong in October 2014.   © Getty Images

China's Communist authorities must consider their 1.3 billion citizens as exceptionally fragile souls, prone to having their feelings hurt at the smallest slight. Not only are mainland Chinese restricted from openly saying what they want, they also must be protected from any form of offensive speech that might cause undue anxiety.

As anyone who deals with or lives in the realm of the Chinese Communist Party knows, "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people" has become the common admonition against transgressors, repeated countless times since the phrase appeared in the Communist lexicon in 1959.

What is new is how Beijing's rulers seem intent on using the country's new economic clout to extend their protective bubble globally, blocking out any and all affronts to its people's tender sensibilities. No matter how trivial or unintended the perceived insult, offenders must be punished until they acquiesce, usually with a kowtowing public apology.

This is China's version of "soft power" as the country prepares to supplant the U.S. as the world's largest economy -- using intimidation, threats and an iron fist in place of persuasion and leadership by example.

Marriott International, the hotel group, learned this lesson when it sent out an innocent Mandarin-language survey in January asking customers for their home residence, and listing Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate "countries."

Beijing was clearly not amused. The questionnaire was quickly amended, Marriott's CEO apologized profusely, and the company issued an eight-point "rectification plan" to prevent future missteps. But even that was not enough. Soon, China's internet trolls discovered that a Marriott employee had "liked" a Twitter post by the pro-independence Friends of Tibet congratulating the hotel chain for listing Tibet as a country. The employee was duly sacked.

This was not an isolated case. Companies such as Delta Air Lines, German carmaker Audi and some two dozen other international businesses have been called out recently for "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people." The offenses included ill-advised maps and website drop-down menus that trampled Chinese sensibilities over territorial claims.

There have been recent warnings from Australian academics about free-speech issues after incidents in which mainland Chinese students in their classrooms were found to be monitoring teachers' statements for any sign of anti-China bias.

That iron fist -- and the Communist leaders' desire to stifle free speech outside the mainland -- has extended to Hong Kong, ostensibly an autonomous region with a separate local government. With the help of handpicked local minions, Beijing has decided that the question of Hong Kong independence is so sensitive that mere discussion of the topic must be officially proscribed. Students in high schools and on university campuses are not supposed to talk about it. And candidates for local legislative seats have found that they must face a new kind of loyalty test on the independence question, or find themselves barred from running for office.

A pro-democracy advocate named Agnes Chow Ting, who at 21 was hoping to become Hong Kong's youngest member of the legislative council, was unexpectedly banned from running in a March 11 by-election for an open seat. Her offense? Her party, Demosisto, advocated "democratic self-determination" for Hong Kong -- which in Beijing's eyes is a code word for independence.

Beijing's handpicked Hong Kong leaders also seem intent on purging from the political scene anyone associated with the 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the "Umbrella Movement." Some of the young protest leaders were jailed, although recently freed on appeal.

In almost every case -- from the Marriott mishap to the culling of the candidate pool in Hong Kong -- the key issue is China's territorial integrity.

This is a sensitive issue for every country, not just China. The U.S. fought a bloody civil war that settled the question on whether American states could secede. The difference here is that it is not a crime in America to simply discuss secession. There are even secessionist political parties, like the Texas Nationalist Movement, which advocates "Texit" and claims some 350,000 supporters.

Maybe thick-skinned Americans are just not as sensitive as their Chinese counterparts, and their feelings not so easily hurt. And just maybe, China's rulers might one day learn that the easiest way to fuel support for any idea, no matter how far-fetched, is to try to ban any talk of it.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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