Tea Leaf Nation

From China, Love and Hate for Common’s Oscar Speech

The recording artist's nod to Hong Kong protesters set off a social-media flame war.

87th Annual Academy Awards - Show
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 22: Musicians Common (L) and John Legend accept the Best Original Song Award for 'Glory' from 'Selma' onstage during the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

After ascending the stage to receive the Oscar for Best Original Song along with popular crooner John Legend, the Chicago-born hip-hop artist known as Common sought to link the historic civil rights protests in Selma, Alabama with more recent struggles elsewhere. Common’s winning song, Glory, was dedicated to marches on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge; the “spirit of that bridge,” Common told assembled guests at the Feb. 22 awards ceremony in Los Angeles, “connects the kid from the south side of Chicago dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy.”

Residents in the former British colony of Hong Kong were listening, as were their neighbors in mainland China, which now exerts sovereignty over the city. The online reaction that’s ensued signals a continuing divide between Hong Kong’s democracy advocates, who believe Beijing is unfairly interfering with Hong Kong elections, and mainland Chinese residents, many of whom strongly oppose the pro-democracy movement, remain suspicious of Western meddling in Hong Kong, and consider protesters there “spoiled” for demanding rights mainland Chinese don’t enjoy.

In September and October 2014, images of young Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters facing down police brigades and sleeping in street tents captivated Western media — and prompted Hong Kong’s head of government, C.Y. Leung, to lash out at “external forces” that he said were supporting what came to be known as the Umbrella Movement. The movement’s impact continues to reverberate, but it did not last long; in December, police removed demonstrators from their remaining encampments. Although the streets have been largely free of protesters since, tensions continue to simmer. Over 8,000 people returned to Hong Kong streets on Feb. 1 in a rally calling for a fair and free elections in 2017, and some have vowed to continue to fight.

On Weibo, a major social media platform in mainland China, criticism of Common’s speech has been fierce. “You sing some crappy song and then think you stand at the moral heights and understand everything,” one popular comment read. Another user wrote, “His supporting Hong Kong occupiers is free speech, and my calling him an idiot is also free speech.” Curse words and racial epithets were also in plentiful supply, prompting several to express disgust with what one called the lack of “public wisdom” online.

One frequent complaint about the speech was a perceived Western tendency, particularly in Hollywood, to opine on what many considered internal Chinese affairs. One wrote, “Some foreign entertainers who lack culture or knowledge and have only fame consider themselves policy-makers. Look at what democracy’s done in Ukraine, Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere. When Hong Kong was under English rule, where were the Westerners calling [for a] ‘free HK’??” Another mentioned widespread support in Hollywood for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who is largely vilified in Chinese state media, and wrote, “There’s nothing wrong with freedom of speech, but I really can’t stand” what the user called “Western fakery.”

By contrast, Hong Kong social media reacted to Common’s words with enthusiasm. On Facebook, the social network of choice for the city’s young residents, multiple protester-run pages shared the news, drawing mostly messages of support and thanks. Writers made a point of distinguishing Hong Kong commentary from that found on the mainland, highlighting some of the most offensive specimens of Weibo chatter. The Hong Kong-based Stand News, a non-profit, pro-democracy outlet founded in the wake of the Umbrella Movement, remarked on the schism between “applause” in Hong Kong social media and “violent criticism” from the mainland. Protester-run media outlet Passion Times ran a rebuttal to mainland critiques titled, “Fool: Rap Has Always Been About Politics!” that traced hip-hop’s origins to 1960s social movements and criticized mainlanders as “slaves to a powerful nation” who “don’t see the jail bars” surrounding them.

Strong words aside, Common’s statement is unlikely to engender ongoing Chinese animosity toward Hollywood. Hollywood has a history of activism on Chinese social issues — Christian Bale openly supported the work of now-exiled human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, and Richard Gere has long called for a free Tibet. Yet Chinese audiences often flock to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and the U.S. film industry has shown itself willing to work with Chinese film distributors in an effort to tap into China’s growing box office, now the world’s second largest. Many there have heard of the Oscars, and many follow the awards ceremony closely on social media: China’s search engine, Baidu, listed it as a top search term on Feb. 23, and Internet portal Tencent live-blogged the proceedings. For his part, Common is unlikely to pack Beijing or Shanghai stadiums any time soon — but he’d surely be consoled to know he’s just become huge among Hong Kong youth.

Yiqin Fu and Ellie Ng contributed research.

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David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.