Tea Leaf Nation

‘Why Won’t Anyone Play With Us?’ China’s Internet Erupts With TPP Angst

Word of the trade alliance has citizens asking why Chinese reforms have stalled.

Trade representatives attend at a press conference for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pan-Pacific trade agreement by trade ministers from 12 nations in Sydney on October 27, 2014. The TPP, which would encompass 40 percent of the global economy and include 12 nations, has been the subject of negotiations for years. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS        (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Trade representatives attend at a press conference for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a pan-Pacific trade agreement by trade ministers from 12 nations in Sydney on October 27, 2014. The TPP, which would encompass 40 percent of the global economy and include 12 nations, has been the subject of negotiations for years. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 5, U.S. authorities, in concert with those from 11 other nations bordering the Pacific Ocean, announced the completion of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a sweeping free-trade deal that would more closely bind the economies of countries as diverse and far-flung as the United States, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, and Australia. But China, despite having the world’s second-largest economy and a land mass very much bordering the Pacific Rim, wasn’t included. With major deals of its own in the works, such as “One Belt One Road” — a massive initiative that would create new infrastructure linking China and India’s economies more closely with those of Central Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East — Chinese policymakers have been eager to project something bordering on indifference to TPP. The day of the announcement, state news agency Xinhua issued language that hinted at tacit approval and downplayed TPP’s role as “one of many free trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region.” But on social media, Chinese commentators aren’t taking the recent news so well. They believe it constitutes a slap in the face for President Xi Jinping, a setback for Chinese interests, and a possible comeuppance for a China that has played fast and loose with international rules for too long.

The TPP news came during China’s “Golden Week,” a weeklong vacation period that celebrates National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. That break gave citizens extra time to engage the topic on their smartphones, perhaps while stuck in a massive highway gridlock or a packed train car. While TPP did not top the social media charts, interest in the announcement was strong: TPP was the fourth most searched term on massive mobile chat platform WeChat, where a post translating the TPP’s provisions into Chinese had been read over 90,000 times. On Weibo, a popular Twitter-like platform, “TPP” has been discussed over 1.2 million times.

In contrast to Beijing’s sang-froid, citizen commenters variously depicted TPP as a “sucker punch” that is “obviously directed” against China, a “smack in the face” to Chinese President Xi Jinping after his late September state visit to the United States, and an effort to “contain China’s development.” They said the deal was “new colonial territory” and the United States’ “own wall” around itself after years of trade deficits with China. On Weibo, Feng Wei, a professor of history at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, agonized that “TPP creates an integrated supply chain among the United States, Japanese technology, Australian resources, and Vietnamese labor. What is China to do?”

Most striking of all, commenters spoke critically of Chinese political and economic reform with a candor not often seen in the midst of a crackdown on social media and Internet speech that’s now over 2 years old. Sun Liping, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua, asked on Weibo why so many Chinese were “reveling in the misfortune” of having been excluded from the TPP. “Behind it,” he wrote, “are dissatisfactions with the status quo and demands for reform.”

Indeed, much of the online hand-wringing about TPP evinced anxiety about Chinese leaders’ evident recent turn away from certain elements of international society, from their declarations of “internet sovereignty” and increasingly harsh regulations on online speech to Education Minister Yuan Guiren’s now-famous denunciation of Western values in a January speech. Generally speaking, these moves are not in keeping with the earlier promise of Chinese reform. Former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously said it would involve “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” Many took the statement as an exhortation that China, undertaking a historically unprecedented effort to reinvent itself, would have to make things up as it went, mindful of reality and untethered to overweening ideological considerations. The efforts often involved using foreign institutions — including the World Trade Organization, which China joined in 2001 — as forcing mechanisms to spur internal reform, even over the objection of traditionalist policymakers and interest groups.

Many outside observers now feel China has still not followed through on the reforms some leaders wished it to undertake in 2001. The U.S. trade representative’s 2014 report to Congress on China’s WTO compliance complained that, 13 years in, Chinese government officials continued to flaunt key WTO principles at times, requiring technology transfers, using regulatory powers to retaliate against legitimate use of WTO provisions, and using China’s anti-monopoly law “to protect and promote domestic national champions.” Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., cautions that China is “in compliance on the broad majority of issues. China has an aggressive industrial policy, but it is not a rogue mercantilist,” he told Foreign Policy via email. “If China had not joined the WTO, its approach to trade would be far more mercantilist and unfair.”

It may be true that China’s a better international citizen than it would be without WTO membership. But the TPP news has brought forth Chinese voices critical of the gap between the potential of their country’s reform and its reality. One Weibo comment said China’s TPP exclusion “traces back to China’s entry into the WTO, when China made many promises, like ending tariffs on cars within a certain time, opening markets for telecom, oil, media, protecting IP … now they know China’s promises aren’t dependable, no one in China respects the spirit of contract, so they won’t play with us.” Another wrote that “the imperialist boss of the WTO,” i.e., the United States, “pulled China into the crowd then discovered it was taking all the money. So the U.S. dragged in more unwilling little partners to start a new crowd.” Another added: “If you don’t follow rules, other people won’t want to play with you; this is very normal.”

The Global Times, a state-run outlet known for its sometimes jingoistic views, sought on Oct. 6 to reassure readers about TPP’s effects in a widely cited article that inadvertently showcased just how much Chinese anxiety surrounds the TPP. The Times noted that over the national holiday, “public opinion reached a climax,” with “some voices saying [TPP] will conflict with, or even crush, the Chinese economy.” But in fact, the piece argued, the effects will be mostly short-term, and besides the United States and China, the other signatories lack major heft in international trade. It said the TPP is doomed to irrelevance “without the world’s second-largest economy on the inside.” The article chalked some of the collective angst over TPP to an “overactive imagination.”

At any rate, U.S. President Barack Obama gave Chinese inclined to imagine the worst some real-world grist with his Oct. 5 statement that his country “can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy.” That may have been a line intended primarily to help sell the TPP at home among skeptical constituencies, but China heard it loud and clear. On Weibo, one complained that state media had “puffed up the fruits of the Xi-Obama meeting — then just days later,” Obama “smacks [Xi] in the mouth.” It’s not just foreigners who seem to be questioning China’s chops. In September, Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, one of Asia’s richest men and known for his close ties to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, endured scathing state media coverage and allegations of being “unpatriotic” over his investment empire’s steady turn away from Asia and toward Europe.

Some appear to hope that the TPP will have the effect of reinvigorating some stalled reforms. Xu Zidong, a scholar of Chinese literature, asked hopefully whether “TPP will have any outside force — can it become a kind of turning point?” Another wrote: “China can lower taxes and keep people here to spend. It can open administrative monopolies and allow anyone to enter oil and telecom. It can lessen [administrative] approvals, seriously eliminate administrative personnel, and increase efficiency.” He added, quite boldly, that “to protect private property, we should not talk about communism anymore. It’s just driving more Li Ka-shings away.”

That sense of isolation was particularly acute when citizens discussed the sensitive topics of democracy and the Internet. One widely shared blog post, censored from parts of Weibo but preserved elsewhere, was deeply critical of China’s turn away from reform. “It’s obviously been over ten years [since WTO entry], and we’ve clearly had time to reform,” the pseudonymous author wrote. “We feel the stones, but when are you bureaucrats going to cross the river? It’s the age of the Internet; knowledge and information are exploding. We needed time, but the age of the Internet doesn’t give us time.” In a censored post captured by mirror site Freeweibo, Wang Jianguo, a management professor at Peking University, wrote that TPP is “the bitter fruit” from China’s “expulsion of Google, its lockdown on the Internet, and its breaking the international rules of the game.” When Yang Jinlin, who works for Hong Kong Satellite Television, wrote that the reaction to TPP should be “self-confidence,” not fear, the top response argued: “TPP is not scary. What’s scary is how the masses are pushed aside, which implies an inability to cooperate genuinely with others. In a world dependent on globalization, shouldn’t that terrify us?”

Not everyone was as introspective. On Zhihu, a question-and-answer forum, the most popular post about the pact sneered at U.S. hypocrisy: “Freedom, democracy, rule of law, protection of human rights, privatization of state-owned enterprises, protection of labor rights, and environmental protection — are you fucking kidding me? You’ve got an absolute monarchy, countries with long-standing one-party rule, and one implementing sharia law [in the pact].” (Singapore and Vietnam are under the long-standing rule of one political party, while Brunei is a monarchy that began to implement a sharia penal code in 2014.)

The online fulminating in response to the TPP announcement may have produced more heat than light. Speaking at an Oct. 7 forum convened by FP, former diplomat Charles Freeman noted that Chinese-led initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road” would eventually “completely outflank” the impact of TPP. Even if that proves to be true, the debate over TPP now unfolding inside China has exposed an internal ideological division, well-known to China watchers, between liberal reformists, who are often accused of being U.S. apologists, and the conservative voices that often invoke patriotism in service of their arguments. It’s also shown that anxiety about China’s future is not hard to find among Chinese citizens themselves, even as the country’s GDP and military spending continue to march upward. Many comments about TPP were so critical of China itself that one web user wondered at the ranks of “so many people with negative views of their country and their people” coming forth. “If it wasn’t the TPP,” he wrote, “it would have been something else.”

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed research. 

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. Twitter: @dwertime

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