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China's hard power and hurt feelings

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


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 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 first 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 ritualistic 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 leading by example.

Marriott International, the hotel group, learned this lesson when it sent out an innocent Mandarin-language questionnaire 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 territories it claims.

China's sensitivities are on increasingly open display. Australian media reported in January that a Taiwanese woman working in a hotpot restaurant in Sydney was fired after saying to her boss that Taiwan was not part of China. This comes after growing warnings from Australian academics that their freedom of speech was under increasing pressure, after incidents in which mainland Chinese students in their classrooms were found to be monitoring their teachers' statements for any sign of anti-China bias.

That iron fist from Beijing -- 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, which has come increasingly under Beijing's grip.

With the help of handpicked local minions, Beijing has decided that the question of Hong Kong independence is so sensitive that the 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 now 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.

Two other young candidates, Ventus Lau Wing-hong and James Chan Kwok-keung, were also barred from standing. The Hong Kong Electoral Affairs Commission said the two harbored lingering pro-independence views based on their past statements. Both barred candidates said they no longer supported independence. But their reversals were apparently not sufficiently abject to satisfy China's new candidatevetting procedures.

The banning of candidates based solely on their views -- or on authorities' perception of their views -- marks a new blow to Hong Kong's freedoms, which have been steadily eroding since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. Beijing's chosen Hong Kong leaders 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 have been jailed though were recently freed on appeal.

In almost every case -- from the Marriott mishap to the culling of Hong Kong's candidate pool -- the key issue has been China's territorial integrity, where the Communist leadership draws its firmest red line.

Perhaps the Mandarins running China became jittery over the U.K.'s "Brexit" vote to leave the European Union. Maybe they saw the recent unrest in Catalonia, where Spanish police used violence to try to prevent a separatist vote, as a cautionary reason to nip independence sentiment in the bud. Or perhaps the lesson was from East Timor, which voted for independence in a 1999 referendum to end 24 years of Indonesian occupation.

Territorial integrity 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 secessionists lost and the Union was preserved).

But the difference 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. Hawaii has a small independence movement of natives still smarting over the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Giving all these movements a voice seems to make them less relevant.

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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