Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Web Users Sneer at Reports of ‘Bregret’

Weibo scorns Brexit remorse after ‘careless’ votes in ‘this referendum thing.’

TOPSHOT - A pedestrian shelters from the rain beneath a Union flag themed umbrella as they walk near the Big Ben clock face and the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 25, 2016, following the pro-Brexit result of the UK's EU referendum vote.
The result of Britain's June 23 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU) has pitted parents against children, cities against rural areas, north against south and university graduates against those with fewer qualifications. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU but Wales and large swathes of England, particularly former industrial hubs in the north with many disaffected workers, backed a Brexit. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS        (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A pedestrian shelters from the rain beneath a Union flag themed umbrella as they walk near the Big Ben clock face and the Elizabeth Tower at the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 25, 2016, following the pro-Brexit result of the UK's EU referendum vote. The result of Britain's June 23 referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU) has pitted parents against children, cities against rural areas, north against south and university graduates against those with fewer qualifications. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU but Wales and large swathes of England, particularly former industrial hubs in the north with many disaffected workers, backed a Brexit. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

On June 24, China awoke to the news that U.K. voters had defied global expectations and sought to leave the European Union in a widely-watched referendum. The news probably wasn’t what Beijing wanted to hear; three days later, Premier Li Keqiang, China’s official economic steward, told the World Economic Forum that the vote “further increased uncertainties in the global economy.” (In Sept. 2014, on the eve of the failed Scottish secession referendum, Li had called for a “strong, prosperous, and united United Kingdom.”) A U.K. outside the EU is generally bad for global business, and thus, in the near term, also bad for China. But the personal consequences for individual Chinese were limited, and on Chinese social media, the most candid platform available to discuss news and politics, few seemed to care about the grand strategic dividends an increasingly fractured West might yield for China in years hence.

Online attitudes changed when reports began to trickle out in Western media that U.K. voters who had supported Leave professed regret for their choice. “Yesterday, after the results of the referendum were published, some voting to leave appear to have awoken with regret. I was stunned,” wrote a user on Weibo, China’s popular, Twitter-like platform, in a June 25 comment shared over 100,000 times. “Something this big — and they voted that carelessly.”

That observation triggered a cavalcade of derision for “careless” British votes in “this referendum thing.” One post that received over 45,000 “likes” concluded, “Elite rule is superior to mass rule; ultimately, the wisdom of the crowds isn’t very stable.” And for those “shouting for democracy every day,” read another, “would you be able to use it correctly if it was given to you?” One user sneered that the referendum showed why the “celestial dynasty,” slang for Beijing’s Communist government, “doesn’t allow the sunflower seed-eating masses to vote as they wish!” (Over 21,000 Weibo users, none of whom presumably enjoy the popular snack, clicked “like” to signal their approval.)

Chinese web users were particularly struck by reports that some U.K. voters may not have known what they were voting about. “Now Google U.K. says the second-most popular search term is, ‘What is the E.U.?’” marveled one. “It implies that English citizens didn’t take leaving the EU seriously until now.” Not that the commenter thought Chinese voters would have fared any better. “If China voted in a referendum on whether to attack Japan, I bet it would pass, without people really considering the negative consequences.” One respondent reckoned that a vote for China’s Communist Party chairman would result in the selection of popular rapper, actor, and model Kris Wu, adding, “this referendum thing puts the destiny of a nation in the hands of a bunch of [nobodies].”

Beijing has let the commentary stand — evidence of censored Brexit posts is scant — surely because current web chatter fits squarely into the government narrative about the putative dangers of a popular vote.

But the center seems eager not to push its luck. On June 27, according to a directive leaked to the California-based China Digital Times, Chinese news outlets were ordered to “immediately control the scale of [Brexit-related] coverage on all websites and new media platforms: reduce the quantity of reports, and don’t hype the story, speculate, or comment.” (While Foreign Policy could not independently verify the authenticity of the order, the Digital Times has a history of accuracy on this score.) The order may have come down because Beijing, which believes its territorial integrity to be under constant threat from outside forces, generally disfavors any discussion of splittism, wherever it may be. Discussions of foreign affairs tend to quickly find their way back to debates on domestic issues. As far from China as the Sceptered Isle may sit, the issues its controversial referendum have raised are universal.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed research. 

Justin Tallis/AFP

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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