Tea Leaf Nation

The Great Divide

The Great Divide

The ongoing Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong has led to an unexpected side effect in mainland China: It has broken up thousands of friendships. Mainland Chinese with differing views have been busy unfriending and unfollowing each other on social networks including Facebook and Weibo, China’s native equivalent of Twitter. Although statistics aren’t available, according to centrist Hong Kong-based Mingpao Daily, a mainland journalist named Annie Zhang based in the former British colony described on Facebook a "collective unfriending war" between mainland Chinese who live in Hong Kong and those who live on the mainland. One of my old mainland college classmates told me in a distraught phone call that she was shocked to learn that her college friends support the use of tear gas against protesters. She told me she would never discuss politics with them again — and might never dine with them again at all.

The mutual surprise and mistrust between Chinese on different sides of the Hong Kong protest movement goes beyond disagreements on policy or principles. As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests continue following a Sept. 28 police crackdown that galvanized demonstrators and captured the world’s attention, Chinese have found it difficult to communicate with each other at all.

To supporters of the protest, the movement is about whether Hong Kong will get to democratically elect its chief executive in 2017, as China’s State Council arguably promised in a 2012 announcement. To mainland Chinese who side with their central government, this peaceful Occupy Central movement is not really a demand for democracy at all: It’s a conspiratorial and dangerous threat to the national interest, the dignity of the state, social stability, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China. If these sound like well-worn terms in some Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspaper, that’s because they are; but they have also become part of the everyday language that Chinese use to discuss and understand social and political issues.

In fact, this language system, one essentially invented by party propagandists, is one of the major reasons that mainland Chinese have thus far proved much less sympathetic toward Hong Kong protesters than some outsiders have expected. The education system in China not only instills Marxism — which uses class relations and social conflict to explain all social, economic and political matters — but it also excites nationalist sentiments while emphasizing discipline and social adhesion. The result is a whole vocabulary distinct from natural, daily communication — and a population primed to receive it.

Even though democracy has been increasingly discussed in the last several years as online discussion platforms proliferate, elections have never felt like a practical topic to most mainland Chinese. With terms like "Western anti-Chinese forces" and "a handful of ulterior motives" frequently invoked in response to many political and diplomatic problems, the "love and peace" that protesters from the Occupy Central movement espouse sounds insincere, even bizarre. Meanwhile, the anger in Hong Kong triggered by Beijing’s assertion of power in a June white paper seems unreasonable because it fits into the existing language system perfectly. The white paper emphasized Beijing’s power and insisted that Beijing could safeguard "the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests," warning opposition would put "Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and the wellbeing of its people in serious jeopardy." To Hong Kong residents, nationalist rhetoric like this sounds canned and menacing; to mainland readers, it’s all highly coherent with their everyday reading.

After school and universities inculcate this lexicon, China’s state-controlled propaganda system broadcasts it, normalizing its use and injecting it into everyday discourse. During conversations on social and political matters, many Chinese tend to turn to Marxism without questioning its applicability. A classic example of its impact can be found in the extremely popular anti-protest article titled "The Hong Kong Problem: It’s the Economy, Stupid!" originally posted to discussion forum Tianya in Aug. 18 to discuss rising tensions in the city. The piece expertly deploys a language system that prioritizes national interests and social stability. It claims that "the prosperity of Hong Kong has nothing to do with the will of the people" and insists that "the true problem in Hong Kong" is a failure to understand a shift in the "mode of economic development" there.

Similarly, a popular article published Oct. 3 on Chinanews.com called "Ten Questions About Occupying Central in Hong Kong" repeatedly stresses that the current situation there is "relevant to the nation’s interest in sovereignty, safety, and development" and also to "the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong in the long term." It claims that "spokespeople for foreign powers" would, if given the chance, "seize the power to govern Hong Kong." Even if these influential pieces were drafted by government-affiliated authors masquerading as everyday netizens — a common enough practice in Chinese cyberspace — they cannot help but shape Chinese people’s mode of thinking.

None of this is to say mainland Chinese are all brainwashed zombies or hard-core nationalists. Some mainland Chinese sympathize with Hong Kong, but either are too scared to voice their true opinion or get censored as soon as they do. For example, mainland netizens who want to place the Hong Kong protests in historical context have had to get creative to avoid using banned words like "Umbrella Revolution," the protest’s self-given nickname; "Benny Tai," a protest organizer; or even "pepper spray," any of which triggers the censorship system. Instead, netizens use "Pearl of the Orient" to refer to Hong Kong and "celebrating National Day" to refer to the demonstrations. The fact that protest supporters need to surrender the words most crucial to articulating their viewpoints ensures that unapproved language stays out of the mainstream, minimizing its possible impact.

Then there are the mainlanders who have the skill to climb over the so-called Great Firewall of censorship, which keeps Chinese from accessing certain Western sites like Facebook. Some have stood up in support of Hong Kong protesters, creating a page dedicated to mainland supporters. But it’s lightly trafficked, and many on the Facebook platform remained confined in the linguistic straitjacket. When Taiwanese celebrity Michelle Chen voiced her support for Hong Kong protesters on her Facebook page, some mainland Chinese left threatening messages. "Do you really think we know nothing under the censorship of the party?" read one particularly jarring comment. It dared Chen to "post the same thing on Weibo if you have the guts!" One typical response to that comment: "She does not dare because she is afraid of losing the mainland market."

The language system I describe here might sound similar to what George Orwell depicted as "Newspeak" in 1984, his dystopian novel about the rule of a totalitarian state. But the language Chinese encounter in their everyday lives is much more subtly designed and cautiously maintained than that, and Chinese people may not even realize how it shapes their worldview. For example, mainland students often do not believe that they are actually influenced by their compulsory courses on politics and Marxism — indeed, most of them do not enjoy these courses at all. In a poll conducted by students at the Communication University of China in Beijing, 52 percent of students surveyed said they tend to sleep, chat, or send text messages during their Marxist philosophy classes, and 63 percent said they do not think of Marxism as something important and worth learning. But Chinese discourse suggests that Marxist concepts ultimately become so deeply rooted that students (and graduates) may fail to reflect on how they shape the way Chinese people speak, and even think.