Tea Leaf Nation

China, From Within: Hong Kong Celebrities Divide Along Protest Lines; and ‘Vanity Engineering’ in Danger

A week of news the West missed from the world's most populous country.

Philippe Lopez
Philippe Lopez

Every day, FP‘s China team at the Tea Leaf Nation channel scours dozens of Chinese media outlets to find compelling stories unreported in Western mainstream press. This week, we bring you: Hong Kong’s celebrity scene divides along protest lines; China demolishes multi-million dollar monstrosities by the hundreds; Alibaba is still selling illegal porn; hotels ditch stars to woo government; and Chinese grassroots activism takes another legal hit.

Hong Kong celebrities are taking sides, breaking ties over Hong Kong protests.

According to online magazine the Observer, Hong Kong film director Wong Jing announced on social media on Oct. 16 that he was breaking ties with fellow Hong Kong director Anthony Wong, actor Chapman To, and singer Denise Ho due to their support of the Hong Kong protest movement.

The pro-democracy protests that have crippled part of Hong Kong for nearly three weeks have deepened divisions within the Asian financial center, and discord is now spreading to Hong Kong’s iconic film and arts industries. Over the weekend, rumors spread that books by Hong Kong and Taiwan authors supportive of the Hong Kong protests would soon be banned on the mainland; these rumors remain unconfirmed.

Government demolishes 663 construction projects in fight against "vanity engineering."

From an $11 million, 200-foot-tall bronze statue capable of rotating 360 degrees and deemed the "tallest bronze statue in China," to a $5 million ultra-luxury office building designed to mimic Shanghai’s World Expo Center, lavish but useless "vanity engineering projects" throughout China are now being demolished. States news agency Xinhua reported on Oct. 15 that, in the first large-scale action of its kind, China’s central government has demolished or discontinued hundreds of these engineering projects, initiated by local government officials but now deemed "wasteful" and corrupt. Authorities have begun investigations of 418 individuals associated with the projects.

Local governments have long relied on expensive investment projects to fuel local economic growth and bolster local prestige; and some local officials accept bribes when determining how government-funded projects are doled out. But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign now seems to be taking aim at the corruption and waste that have fueled the proliferation of local government vanity projects.

Alibaba’s Taobao and Sina Weibo still contain illegal pornographic content.

An Oct. 16 report in Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily found that it was easy to access illegal sex-related content on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao, as well as the huge microblogging platform Weibo. While direct searches for pornographic content such as the term "adult video" were blocked, using vague search terms yielded a wealth of illegal pornographic content. On Weibo, for example, searching for "business models" revealed several pornographic accounts.

A government campaign aiming to "sweep out" online pornographic content, launched in April, has led to crackdowns on social media, fan fiction, video-sharing, and many other types of websites. As part of the crackdown, government regulators have already meted out punishments to several of China’s biggest Internet companies such as Sina, Tencent, and Baidu for sharing obscene content. Perhaps Alibaba is next.

Five-star hotels in China go starless to keep government business.

After authorities issued a new guideline in Sept. 2013 forbidding government offices from holding events at five-star hotels, some five-star hotels in China raced to earn a demotion to four-star status to attract government business. But according to an Oct. 16 report by liberal newspaper Beijing News, some five-star hotels are now choosing to opt out of the star rating system completely. Most of these hotels serve as conference centers for government events. Despite the loss of the classy five-star rating, however, these hotels did not usually lower their prices. The report also found that this year, for the first time ever, the number of five-star hotels in China decreased rather than increased.

Intended to reduce wasteful government spending amid an ongoing anti-corruption campaign, the guideline has hit hotel revenues hard, with an 8.9 percent drop in revenues in the past eight months. Getting rid of the five-star label, or opting out of the rating system entirely, is one way to regain lost government clientele.

Chinese Supreme Court takes aim at "human flesh searches."

In an Oct. 14 op-ed, Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily has indicated that a new Internet privacy ruling issued by the Chinese People’s Supreme Court last week was aimed at ending "human flesh searches." Used as a type of grassroots anti-corruption investigation, "human flesh search" refers to a type of informal online crowdsourcing in reaction to an inflammatory photograph or piece of news. Hundreds or even thousands of netizens go in search of the identity and other personal information of the person in the photograph, and post their findings. This method has contributed to the fall of a number of corrupt officials, perhaps most notoriously Yang Dacai, or "Watch Brother," a mid-rank provincial official who wore different luxury watches in a number of different photos, drawing the ire of netizens angry at official corruption.

The ruling party has previously indicated, through the arrest and prosecution of grassroots anti-corruption activists, that the party — and only the party — has the right to investigate and target corrupt officials. Human flesh searches, common a few years ago, have already dwindled, likely due to the ongoing crackdown on "rumors" that has shackled online speech. The new Supreme Court ruling has provided stronger legal backing to clamp down on this form of grassroots anti-corruption activism.

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