Argument

Angry Nationalists Don’t Sell China’s Message

Targeting Hong Kongers instead of persuading them is a dangerous course.

Counter-protesters wave Chinese flags in the Place Saint Michel, central Paris, as they oppose demonstrators gathering to support  protests in Hong Kong, on August 17, 2019.
Counter-protesters wave Chinese flags in the Place Saint Michel, central Paris, as they oppose demonstrators gathering to support protests in Hong Kong, on August 17, 2019. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

China analysts have always hoped that the next generation would bring change, especially as the elite headed overseas. But that’s not looking very likely. On Aug. 17, a group of Chinese students in their patriotic Ferraris, McLarens, Porsches, and Aston Martins adorned with five-starred flags, ran their dragsters alongside a pro-Hong Kong rally in Toronto, calling the Hong Kong protesters “poor garbage.”

The previous day, a shouting match erupted at a pro-Hong Kong rally at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. In response to chants of “Hong Kong, Stay Strong,” mainland Chinese students countered in unison, “Cao ni ma bi”—an obscene Chinese insult that’s made its way into the Urban Dictionary.

In the meantime, though, Hong Kongers are taking to the streets in defense of their rights — and seeing their young leaders arrested as a result. These clashes aren’t just about disparate politics. They’re the battle lines between two entirely different spheres of information, a form of warfare that will define the 21st century. Inside the world of mainland Chinese control, truth and fiction seem reversed. The Chinese students involved in this aggressive political messaging are pushing their country’s narrative—and getting praise for their behavior at home. But that same message is backfiring outside of the mainland, even among some Chinese communities elsewhere in Asia.

These two and other similar incidents were widely celebrated on China’s highly censored Weibo platform. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, defended the legitimacy of Chinese students’ counterprotests abroad. News about the protests was initially shielded outside China’s all-encompassing information firewall. But lately, China has launched a full-blown smear campaign against the protests, attempting to frame them as a secessionist conspiracy concocted by separatists and foreign “black hands” to overthrow the “one country, two systems” policy in place since the handover of Hong Kong by the British government to China in 1997.

That campaign has used every means possible, including mainland media, state-sponsored “party propagandists, and encouraging Chinese citizens to spread more covert messages. On Aug. 19, Facebook and Twitter, which are both blocked in China, announced removals of accounts linked to a “significant state-backed information operation” originating in China. The Chinese government disputed the two companies’ characterization, claiming that the purges were attempts to sabotage a different account of the Hong Kong debacle and the posts were merely expressing the opinions of Chinese citizens overseas.

Despite the chorus at home on the Hong Kong issues, there are dissenting voices out there. One Shenzhen-based writer using the name Li Wangsheng wrote an article titled “A Chilly Confession from a Mainland Supporter of the Hong Kong Protest” on an overseas Chinese website called BackChina.com.

Li’s opening statement reads:

“I am one of the very few people in mainland China who support the Hong Kong protesters. In mainland China, less than 1 percent of people are like me. Recently, when I looked at the people around me and heard my colleagues talking, they all toed the government line, that is, saying Hong Kong people were ‘thugs.’ They even hoped that all Hong Kong people would be suppressed and killed.”

Of course, it’s hard to know exactly what mainlanders feel in their hearts—especially when expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters is so costly. Yet it’s striking how ardent even those abroad have been in defending the government line.

But here’s the rub. The propaganda that works inside the bubble—and that clings to mainlanders even overseas—is part of what’s turning people off the very idea of Chinese-ness in Hong Kong.

Although the Hong Kong protests have drawn demonstrators from all walks of life and all age groups, a recent study shows that nearly 60 percent are 29 years old or younger. According to a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong in 2017, only 3.1 percent of young Hong Kongers identified themselves as “Chinese,” the lowest since the handover to China. By mid-June of this year, in the wake of reportedly 2 million people marching on the streets to call for a complete withdrawal of the city’s controversial extradition bill, 71 percent said “No” when asked if they were proud of being a national citizen of China, while 27 percent said “Yes.” Most tellingly, 90 percent in the 18 to 29 age group answered “No.”

This finding is particularly striking in that even as China increasingly flexes its economic and military muscle, and as its propaganda becomes harder, young people of Chinese descent outside of the totalized infosphere of the mainland are turning sharply away from it. That’s not just the case in Hong Kong—in Taiwan, too, the young are far more opposed to Beijing than previous generations. A study released by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy in April 2018 found a significantly higher percentage of Taiwanese younger than 40 opposing reunification with the mainland than those 40 or older. In the age group 20 to 24, the percentage of Taiwanese who support authoritarian systems is lower than that in Europe and the United States.

Conversely, the internet has not made the youth in mainland China more accepting of the outside world. On the contrary, the Chinese government’s control of the internet seems to have made them more nationalist or patriotic, sometimes to the exclusion of the values of freedom.

To explain the bizarre uniformity of the discourse in China today, Li Wangsheng , the Shenzhen writer, explained: “Our news commentaries can only be displayed after filtering. Any opinion departing from the official line will be deleted. So even if someone has a different view and wants to support Hong Kongers, you don’t get to see these messages or posts on the mainland websites.”

This messaging doesn’t have to be the case. Many Hong Kongers and Taiwanese were once able to find reasons to be proud of China, such as their cultural heritage and the vision of people lifting themselves out of poverty. And, importantly, none of the five demands propounded by the Hong Kong protesters actually pertains to independence or challenging China’s sovereignty. It’s not just wrong, but actively counterproductive to try to reduce the entire protest movement to a secessionist conspiracy—even if you deplore the actions of the small number of protesters who have used violence. Rather than painting with a broad brush to demonize the pro-Hong Kong students, if Beijing really wanted to win them over, it would be thinking about how best to make them feel part of the story of a greater China.

Boastful rich kids and abusive students do not represent the best China can offer to the future of the world. A manufactured dichotomy and patriotic indoctrination will not help China to win over Hong Kongers. The free exchange of ideas will.

Chiu-Ti Jansen is a New York-based media executive who founded China Happenings, a multimedia platform focusing on contemporary China. She is a columnist for Financial Times Chinese Edition and writes for international publications such as South China Morning PostObserver and Sotheby’s Magazine. She was a corporate partner at Sidley Austin LLP, an international law firm.

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