Tea Leaf Nation
Chinese Web Users Sneer at Reports of ‘Bregret’
Weibo scorns Brexit remorse after ‘careless’ votes in ‘this referendum thing.’
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.