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China’s New Labour Politics

Written by Mark Selden and Jenny Chan.

By some measures China surpassed the United States in 2014 to become the world’s largest economy. It did so amidst widespread labour and social tensions. Central both to China’s economic resurgence and mounting social conflict are rural migrants, who have experienced incomplete proletarianisation in that they possess agricultural land-use rights while working as hired labourers in urban and semi-urban areas. By early 2016, 277 million rural migrants had been drawn into industrialisation and urbanisation, an increase of 52 million since 2008, when the government began publishing online annual survey results on work and employment conditions. While China has the world’s largest number of internal migrants, the rate of growth of rural migrant labour has declined from 5.4% in 2010 to 1.3% in 2015 in step with tightening labor markets and demographic transition. Continue reading “China’s New Labour Politics”

The KMT responds to loss: Trauma management and mimetic distortion

Written by Stephane Corcuff.

It could have been the first civic protest against Taiwan’s new government of Premier Lin Chuan and President Tsai Ying-wen. Or, like the Sunflower movement, an expression of the discontent of the civil society, expressed independently from the old political establishment. And it could also have been a surge of imagination to create a brighter future, a way out of old, non-participative politics. The May 31, 2016 street movement, in front of the Legislative Yuan, was the first to be organized after Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration on May 20. After only ten days in existence, the government of Premier Lin Chuan was in effect being denied the opportunity to deliver its first address to the Parliament.

Before 08:00 on May 31, one or two hundreds of elderly pig farmers – at least that was how they were identified by speakers on the stage – had converged on Qingdao East Road 青島東路, close to the main door of Taiwan’s legislative body, and one of the main sites of activity outside the legislative Yuan during the Sunflower movement (18 March – 10 April 2014). When they arrived, they found a fun-fair style stage with microphones, ready for a rally. Some in the KMT had informed the press the previous day that the party was planning “a major event”, one that would reveal the difficulties the KMT has in facing up to electoral defeat. Despite the DPP’s victory in “free and fair” elections in January, a big poster on stage claimed that “The DPP cheats votes” (“民進黨詐欺、 騙票”).

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Protesters wearing various pig-related decorations and holding signs and banners converged at the intersection of Zhenjiang street 鎮江街 and Qingdao East Road 青島東路, one of the now legendary spaces of the Sunflower movement, to criticize the possibility that Tsai’s government may lift a ban on importing American pork containing traces of Ractopamine, a feed additive that enhances meat leanness used by the US pork industry but banned in Taiwan. A French observer of Taiwanese politics nicknamed the event “OccuPig Legislative Yuan” when he later saw a picture by the Central News Agency of the big polystyrene pig being smuggled into the Legislative Yuan.

Enhancing Food Safety, Protecting Taiwanese

When I arrived on site, at 08:35, the main argument that could be heard was the necessity to protect the health of Taiwanese. When I left at 11:44, it was a long time since talk stopped being about pork imports, food safety and health concerns of “Taiwan Moms” (“台灣媽媽”). For the last half of the event, it had been all about how bad the DPP and the NPP are, and why the KMT was here to help.

What I first noticed on site was the age of the protesters: all of them were old. It was striking: not most people, but all of them. With time passing, bystanders came, intrigued. And as news channels finally arrived, looking for a possible remake of the Sunflower story, a few young journalist faces popped up too. By 10:00, a small group of four or five young men were on stage. They talked, inevitably, about Taiwan’s future. But their allotted time on stage was less than five minutes, and they were sandwiched between old KMT figures who monopolized the microphone. What a striking contrast with the youth-led Sunflower movement.

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At 10:00 there were not many politicians on site, and everybody was speaking Taiwanese: the balance later shifted very obviously to Mandarin. The number of demonstrators was still quite low, although a large number of police were blocking two entrances to the legislature. I had expected a greater turnout, but the number probably reached no more than 500. The crowd was subdued most of the time, yet it was marked by an increasingly anger fostered by the stage politicians, loudspeakers, and ‘Taiwan Mammas’ blowing whistles in anticipation of the politicians’ arrival.

It soon became clear that the protest was political, with health concerns, pork imports and policy decisions relegated to afterthoughts. The stage filled up with KMT politicians, of different clans, happily reunited: Mrs Wang Hung-wei 王鴻薇, a KMT city councillor in Taipei, former spokeswoman and close aid to Hung Hsiu-chu; Mr Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇, a KMT legislator who had just lost his seat in January; Mr Chen Ming-yi 陳明義, city counsellor in New Taipei; a city counsellor from Taiwan, Hsieh Lung-chieh謝龍介; a legislator from Nantou, Mrs Hsu Shu-hua許淑華; and several other KMT politicians including Chiang Ching-kuo’s grandson, the young Chiang Wan-an 蔣萬安. According to the United Daily News, also present were KMT legislators Lee Yan-hsiu李彥秀, Wang Hui-mei王惠美, Wang Yu-ming王育敏.

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The ‘farmers’ had apparently not converged spontaneously without organisation, but were alerted by Facebook and social media calls to rally and protest. One speaker on the stage, Legislator Hsu Shu-hua, recognized in the small crowd, “friends from the countryside, coming from Nantou” (“來自南投縣的鄉親”). They were well prepared, decked out in all the relevant street demonstrator paraphernalia: horns, flags, signs, T-Shirts and banners.

While the Premier was being prevented to deliver his address to parliament and respond to questions, I wondered how to interpret this sentence by New Taipei City counsellor Chen Ming-yi, telling to the crowed : “The KMT is not against democracy, we are just again Lin Chuan who is oppressing us” (“我們不反對民主,我們只是反對欺負我們的林全”). It was clear by then that the whole event had been planned to stage a protest and prevent the new Premier from his duties. Just the day before, however, the head of the Council of agriculture, Tsao Chi-hung 曹啟鴻 had declared before the Legislature, during his hearing, that conditions were not ripe for lifting the ban. The KMT could not have been unaware of it, and it was reported by the Central News Agency.

The old folks present were mostly passive observers, sweating under a broiling sun. In addition to “pig farmers”, there were obviously some elder women’s organisations, calling themselves the “Taiwan Moms”, among the most vocal. Water had been prepared for distribution. Perhaps to mask the small number of demonstrators, or to incite them, the organizers had rented a small truck with screens on three sides showing pictures of demonstrators. Screens also showed short movies about the politicians vilified at the same moment on the stage: Tsai Ing-wen, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chü 陳菊 (who was Tsai campaign manager and a veteran democracy activist) and legislators Kuan Pi-ling 管碧玲 and Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃, all women.

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Little by little the attacks became more personal. The most striking attack was on someone’s “brain”. Tsai was not directly mentioned, but the allusion was clear. A speaker on the stage said “The DPP has changed positions, and it now has a pig brain” (“民進黨換位置,就換豬腦袋”). Precautions had been taken not to mention her directly, yet the sentence, in a Taiwanese context, was clear for everyone. In addition, anybody who remembers the verbal attacks launched by some KMT members against Chen Shuibian will remember the officer of the ROC army who said that Chen had a “brain problem” and suggested he be “lobotomized”. The sentence was pronounced several times, in front of everyone. The author was Lin Teh-fu 林德福, convener of the KMT group at the Legislative Yuan. Yet, it would be wrong to imagine that it was just a sentence invented on-stage. As I turned my head to go on watching the crowd, I saw one, two, three banners with the very same words. They had been prepared for the event. The slogan had been designed, discussed, spread, written. It was not an on-site emotional invention. I could infer that, since Lin Teh-fu had been the only one to use this phrase on stage, and that he used it repeatedly, he was probably one of the main organizers of the event. It was confirmed by a press report that he and the notorious Alex Tsai (Tsai Cheng-yuan 蔡正元, probably the politician most vilified by the Sunflowers after Ma Ying-jeou) had indeed both planned the event.

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As I was listening to the attacks launched on the DPP and the NPP – linked together – I noticed the re-appropriation and distortion of the Sunflower ethical, tactical, symbolic and rhetorical heritage. It was now clear: the KMT was behind all this, judging from the increasing number of KMT politicians now on stage, and was recycling what its politicians had learnt at their expense two years before:

  • They initially tried to call upon the policemen to side with them (I heard sentences like “Friends from the police, unite with us and open the doors of the LY”). The Sunflowers had called the police to side with them, too; they failed, but did not, in the end, attack policemen verbally for doing their duty, which the KMT politicians did very earlier on;
  • They tried to “invade” the parliament. However, considering the situation, it was doomed to fail, even though protesters were far more numerous than the students who entered the LY on the night of March 18;
  • They mobilized the “black box” rhetoric. Though nothing has been yet decided on the pork issue, and it was announced that more debate and a consensus was necessary, we still could read some placards criticizing “black box decision making”;
  • Flyers and posters portraying President Tsai with a pig nose recalled President Ma depicted with deer antlers by the Sunflowers;
  • A speaker alleged that the police had sent reinforcements from southern Taiwan, reminiscent of what had happened during the Sunflower movement, though in this case a baseless rumour;
  • Last but not least, as the KMT has done many times in recent years, the rhetoric of “protecting the nation” was used to exhort Tsai not to be “a traitor to the nation”…

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Unlike the Sunflower movement, where the DPP was largely absent, overtaken by events, here the KMT was all over the protest. The activity all revolved around the stage in a traditional, hierarchical one-way relation, with politicians incensing souls in the very same place where, two years ago, there were stages with continuous debates. The KMT did not depart from a very traditional mode of political mobilization where the crowed is regularly asked “好不好?” or “是不是?” (“right?”), where everyone is invariably supposed to reply by a “yes”.

This old style of politics will surely go on, as if the Sunflower x NTICs x g0v revolution of digital civic consciousness had not happened. g0v, 臨時政府, refers to the galaxy of Taiwanese IT civic geeks who are inventing new forms of popular participation and supervision of governance, deeply engaged in open access government sources, among other reflections on how to transform representative democracy.

At a moment when Taiwan is contributing deeply to a world movement of reinvention of democracy though civic monitoring and deliberative democracy, the KMT acts as if it had no other way to mobilize people than convoying protesters to Taipei by buses, with the promise of free water and bento lunches. And, judging from the number of people present, it failed miserably. But my point here is not, actually, to compare the movements: they are immensely different.

What I want to illustrate is how a particular set of values has been appropriated and reused, and turned by the KMT against those who initiated it – the Sunflower students, and, beyond, the DPP, the NPP which was founded after the Sunflower movement, and the Taiwanese nation.

It is not the first time the KMT has used this strategy of appropriating its adversary’s strategy and discourse. During the 2008 campaign, the KMT clearly appropriated the green camp’s Taiwanese nationalism rhetoric – at least, on the surface. During Chen Shui-bian’s tenure, KMT rhetoric was heavily focused on ousting the supposedly illegitimate Chen. As a result, the 2008 campaign was heavily based on “give us back our Taiwan” (“換我台灣”), “saving Taiwan” (“救台灣”) and “protecting Taiwan” (“保衛台灣”), only to see Ma Ying-jeou’s rhetoric abandoning the word “Taiwan” after being elected, in favour of “the Republic of China” that was seldom heard of during his campaign.

During the Sunflower movement, opponents said they were defending democracy against a horde of students decided to ruin the efforts all Taiwanese had done to build their democracy. During the counter-protest organized on April 1 2014 by the White Wolf, Chang An-le 張安樂, I heard him and others saying that they wanted to “protect democracy” (“捍衛民主”), using the very slogan that the students were shouting in front of the nearby Legislative Yuan.

How do people react when the values they fight for are appropriated by others who then turn those values against them in a discursive conflict? How can they respond, when those who recycle their values, whether sincerely convinced or not that they themselves share such values, consciously avoid mentioning that they borrowed them from their opponent? And isn’t such a strategy precisely aimed at leaving them speechless? I cannot respond for militants, but watching this new development in Taiwanese politics in recent years, I feel a need to name this tactic with a word, or an expression, in order to help scholars studying Taiwan identify it more clearly.

Mimetic distortion and the imposition of silence

What we can see at play is a mimetic strategy, in which distortion is conscious and voluntary; it organizes a rhetorical disconnection with reality, acting as a mirror that sends a deformed image. Mimetic distortion aims at leaving the expropriated ones speechless, after depriving them of the very values that they used and mobilized to build their own legitimacy and discourse. It hopes to stun them with its apparent self-assurance in claiming values, rhetoric and strategies appropriated from them. Hence the fact that the appropriating party remains silent about its theft, as doing so would undermine the legitimacy of its rhetoric and expose its strategy. This reminds me of what anthropologist Jérôme Soldani has described as a legitimisation attempt by the KMT in its appropriation of baseball.

Naming this strategy can help us identify it whenever it is used in Taiwanese politics, by whichever camp. For mimetic distortion blurs lines consciously and confuses minds purposely, and should be considered a factor in political debate in Taiwan. As an example, during the Sunflower movement, when the former gangster Chang An-le was calling for his (very few) supporters on site to “protect Taiwan’s democracy”, some “Taiwan Moms” standing next to me were applauding his declarations. But they were also applauding what students were saying. Both sides were calling for Taiwanese to protect their democracy, but one is known to also advocate openly the unification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China.

In Homi Bhabha’s notion of “mimicry”, the colonized imitate colonizers, but never fully become the same. There are substantial differences between “mimicry” and “mimetic distortion”. In the mimetic distortion, the one who appropriates is consciously creating the distortion, while in the mimicry by the colonized, the difference is an automatic result of the impossibility to make an exact replica, and of the strategy by the colonizer to limit this imitation. In addition to this first difference, we see in the KMT case that it is the former dominating minority who appropriates the values of the former majority it used to dominate, and not the opposite. Last, appropriation does not mean that the values are appropriated to be regarded as one’s own, but to deprive the formerly ruled majority of the values that helped it build its national narrative and its legitimacy as his own ruler.

The May 31 appropriation attempt of the Sunflower legend by these KMT politicians shows how the defeated KMT is unable to accept that Taiwan doesn’t belong to them any more. It shows that the colonial minority they represent does not accept Taiwan’s new political order. For them, party change is an aporia, a crisis, and not an occasion to rebuild its platform, rejuvenate its elite, and adapt to new socio-political realities. After all, the new government was inaugurated just 10 days before the event, and one of the protesters’ demands was the Premier’s resignation. This part of the KMT has never accepted democracy. I wrote a long paper on this in the aftermath of the KMT’s campaign for the 2004 presidential election, speaking of the bitter taste of democracy for those who do not believe in it.

Managing a trauma

Why did the KMT politicians of this May 31 movement seem so concerned with mimicking the Sunflower movement? Why did they explicitly re-use some of the most fundamental elements, themes and gestures of the Sunflowers’ symbolic memorabilia, such the hyper-iconic “black box” (黑箱) theme?

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Is this strategy of mimetic distortion simply a sign that the Sunflower culture of street occupation is now so powerfully imprinted on Taiwanese politics that the KMT itself, the primary target of the Sunflower movement, had no other choice than appropriating, re-enacting, transforming, and diverting (some would say ‘perverting’) the set of values it has been a “victim” of?

The artificial nature of the show, and the fact that, beyond appearances, the KMT rally was in fact typically traditional suggests not. The KMT has yet to find a platform and vehicle for mobilizing the youth behind its ideas. It can’t count on popular mobilization self-organized by social media, and instead relies on the old tactic of bussing people in from Taiwan’s south (a tactic the DPP used to great effect many years ago).

The reason why the KMT chose to organize a rally mimicking (or mocking) the Sunflowers may have more to do with the psychology of politicians so used to monopolizing power in Taiwan that being an opposition party is difficult to conceive for them as a normal process of democratic alternation. In addition, never has the KMT experienced such an enormous defeat since 1949, at every level of government, local and national, executive and legislative. After the January 2016 defeat, the KMT has been taken over by the faction of the party which is the most out of touch with Taiwanese society and its leading identity trends regarding unification with China. We should forget about pig farmers and pork meat imports. The KMT – at least those of the KMT represented here – was simply seeking symbolic revenge and psychological relief. In the coming period it will seek many others.

I witnessed on May 31 a form of trauma management – not representing the whole KMT for sure. The mock re-enactment of the Legislature siege, because it had no chance to succeed and because the organizers knew it, was an outlet for this trauma, a post-electoral revenge that required those politicians to seize the tools of the green camp, to express through the adversary’s own language their contempt, and, most importantly, to externalize their anger and their sense of crisis.

Considering that no decision has been taken on US pork imports, and in view of what has been described above about the organization of a non-spontaneous protest, it can be argued that the movement had nothing to do with a civic movement, and was pure political show. The KMT organized the protest, recruited protesters, asked for the legal permission to stage a protest, designed slogans and posters, and built a stage in advance. The police was informed early enough to be prepared and in position by the time the protest started. At the most heated moment, five rows of officers in front of the main entrance protected the Legislature.

It seems clear that no organizer imagined that penetrating the Legislative Yuan would ever be possible. In fact, the re-enactment of the invasion of the chamber did not fail, because no invasion was ever planned. Who could imagine ageing “pig farmers” (who were probably not pig farmers at all), storming the legislature and occupying it? With the precedent of the Sunflowers, the legal declaration of the protest a day in advance, and the important police deployment, there was not a single chance for any protester to climb the fence and successfully penetrate into the compound. I hence witnessed an organized simulacrum. Several KMT Legislators, among whom Huang Chao-shun 黃昭順, repeatedly called for the police to “take away the barbed-wire barricades” (撤拒馬). Yet, there was no barbed wire, and with the small number of persons on site, everyone could easily see it. The play was supposed to end at 12, and it ended at 12:00 sharp.

How should Taiwanese consider incumbent legislators calling for a crowd to besiege and occupy the very Legislature to which they were elected?

Dr Stephane Corcuff is Associate professor at the University of Lyon, France, and researcher at CEFC, Taipei office. He tweets @stephanecorcuff. All images by the author.

The “Terror” Angle in China’s Domestic “Stability Maintenance.”

Written by Tom Cliff.

The foremost aim of Chinese authorities’ “Uyghur terror-threat” mobilisation outside Xinjiang is stability among the Han majority. 

Initially confined to Xinjiang, China has significantly expanded “anti-terror” mobilisation across the country. Urban police forces are rapidly being augmented with paramilitary units, and equipment including armoured cars and semi-automatic weapons. The Chinese authorities employ a discourse of “anti-terror” to justify the militarisation of the streets in Han-majority regions. Taking such assertions at face value is, I believe, problematic. There are, in my view, much better explanations for such mobilisation at this time.

At the very least, such displays of force are used to back up state claims that they are “striking hard at terror” in defence of the Chinese civilian population, and to make that same population feel at once grateful and uneasy. The discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang not least because the need for a discourse of Uyghur instability has spread beyond Xinjiang.

That is, this is not simply about preventing terror attacks on Han civilians—it is primarily about rapidly or even pre-emptively “harmonising” potentially unstable elements of the Han population itself. People feel less uncomfortable when they are told that the police on the streets are there to protect them from dangerous “others,” rather than to protect the state from them or other Han. All forms of traditional and non-traditional media pound home this message within China.

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IMAGE: CCTV frame of black-hooded Uyghurs

The chilling image of black-hooded Uyghurs being repatriated to China from Thailand in July 2015 is a case in point. The image was first broadcast China-wide on prime-time television, and quickly went global. Unverified reports of imprisonment and torture followed just days afterwards. China’s official media responded immediately with a flurry of stories apparently showing that the repatriated Uyghurs were remorseful about being led astray (by outside separatist forces and Islamic extremists), but otherwise living happy lives back in Xinjiang. This was in turn met by predictable international scepticism. From the perspective of the Chinese government, however, what outside observers like the Western world and media think about what happened to these Uyghurs after they were repatriated is, at best, of only secondary importance.

In terms of political aesthetics, “illegal emigrants” returning home in black hoods is a sinister form of shanzhai (copycat product, like a fake Prada bag) through its very clear association with Guantanamo Bay and the US war on terror. These aesthetics help to deliver a clear statement to people inside China that their own domestic war on terror has not only spread beyond Xinjiang, it has spread beyond the borders of the nation-state.

This nationwide threat alert began with the Urumqi riots of 2009, but it has really taken hold since the middle of 2014. By that time, violent incidents in Xinjiang were becoming commonplace, and there had been two high-profile violent protests by Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang. Moreover, increasing numbers of Uyghurs were attempting to flee China through the South, or simply find work outside of Xinjiang, raising their visibility in Han-majority regions.

Uyghur “terrorism” provides a ready-made frame for securitisation. In Xinjiang this has long been the case, but the nationwide expansion of this frame now justifies displays of state power that are also, even primarily, intended to warn off Han people. Among the most protest-active Han groups are rural migrant labourers, pensioners, and laid-off workers who have been underpaid what they feel they are owed.

Guangdong hosts the most migrant workers of any province in China, and these workers have taken their calls for social justice to the streets more often, and more successfully, than workers anywhere else in China. The economy of Dongguan city, in Guangdong, shrank by 10% in 2014, so officials stopped taking statistics altogether in 2015. A colleague’s extensive interviews with migrant workers in the province revealed that they are only working four days per week and are permitted to take leave (without pay) whenever they want. Alongside—and conceptually connected to—this piece of economic news, the workers proffered the information that they try to avoid contact with Uyghur people. Uyghurs are “very dangerous,” they asserted.

Heilongjiang province has a high proportion of pensioners and laid-off workers, and has been a site of continual social unrest since the early 2000s. Most ordinary people’s economic situation has become significantly worse since the beginning of 2013. The plunge in demand and the price of coal, in particular, has driven one of the north-eastern region’s major industries to the wall, and their workers home “to rest” – or onto the streets. Popular discontent is on the rise, and that has already begun to manifest in actual protest. Under these conditions, I do not think it is coincidental that the “Uyghur terror threat” is being given such prominence in the media and official statements.

The media barrage has had a marked effect on public discourse in Heilongjiang. A foreign visitor to the region in mid-2015 was warned: “There are lots of police around. Security is tight.” The taxi driver told the foreign visitor to be careful and to carry their passport at all times so as not to be mistaken for one of the Uyghurs that the newspaper had reported were “on their way here.” A few days later, a local businessman explained the heightened tension in society by saying, “Uyghurs…are not happy with the central government and they want to make trouble. Be very careful.” Driving around, the visitor encountered checkpoints in the most remote locations. But that visitor did not see, or even hear confirmation of, a single Uyghur in the region.

In the last days before Beijing was closed for the military parade in early September 2015, inbound flights were packed with officials who were headed to the capital specifically to do “stability preservation” work. Each prefectural-level city in the Northeast dispatched their mayor or vice-mayor, high-level internal security personnel, and the leaders of key state enterprises—a significant proportion of the region’s governing elite. But it was not Uyghurs who were threatening to be unstable, despite the rumours flying around the Northeast. Asked why so many officials had to personally go to Beijing for the period of the military review, one official confided that “each has to look after their own children.” Those potentially disruptive “children” were Han people from the enterprises and administrative areas that those officials were responsible for.

With armoured police patrols becoming normalised across urban China, Han people who are considering “making a fuss” to draw attention to their own cause will think again, and are likely to think better of it. If facing down “stability preservation” is difficult and dangerous, encountering an “anti-terror” response is often fatal.

Dr Tom Cliff is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Tom’s book, Oil and Water: Being Han in Xinjiang, will be published by The University of Chicago Press in early 2016. Image credit: CC by Dennis Jarvis/Flickr.

Social Media Activism: All the Rage in China

Written by Zixue Tai.

Social media activism has taken root in China in recent years. In its numerous manifestations, it has has redefined the contours of China’s grassroots activism and collective action. Through its invasive presence in China’s cyber world, the formula usually works as follows: a certain individual with an axe to grind vents out a grievance via one of the numerous popular social media outlets, often subtitled in inflammatory comments that easily raise the eyebrows of fellow netizens; an online outrage spreads like wildfire through re-posts and forwards via social networks; the buzz turns into an uproar when conventional reporters, who are always hard-pressed to look for the next headline, jump on the bandwagon; this finally gets the attention of the top dogs, who, by occupying positions of authority in the rigid Chinese power echelon, decide to dispense justice and appease the enraged public. The finale is then endorsed by the state-orchestrated propaganda apparatus as further proof of how the Chinese state can rectify transgressions and maintain social harmony.

There is an unmistakable tone of vengeful populism in the pervasiveness of these highly charged anti-establishment and anti-elitist messages. The specificity of these dynamics can best be understood in the context of several intimately interconnected factors.

The first noticeable thing about China’s social media is its sheer size. For instance, QQ, the leading instant-messaging service across PC and smartphone platforms, now boasts over 800 million active user accounts. Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform, has an active user base of over 280 million and is being accessed by 76 million individuals on an average day. Weixin, the fast-rising smartphone-based text and voice messaging social networking service, reaches over 600 million users, 100 million of whom are outside of China. The magnitude of the network size poses an enormous challenge for state censors, and makes it possible for various contentious activities to exist and thrive across Chinese network space.

The second consideration is the highly controlled nature of China’s conventional media environment. Granted, decades of reform have shifted the Chinese media from the old state-supported model to its current market-based financing system, and the media are more responsive to audience demands and interests. The Party-state, however, has never relinquished its ideological control on the media business, and media professionals periodically receive directives on how to fulfil critical state functions. Understandably, in order to keep propaganda officials off their doorstep, the media tend to shy away from controversial issues and state-proscribed topics. It is no surprise then that boring content propagates conventional media and media-operated online space.

Consequently, leading state media outlets have low credibility among Chinese readers in general and the netizens in particular. Information released by the Big Three – China Central Television (CCTV), People’s Daily, and Xinhua News Agency – often turns into primary source material for popular ridicule and contempt. Here is one telltale example. On 8 February 2014, CCTV aired an investigative expose on the rampant prostitution industry in the Southern City of Dongguan, which forced a swift and heavy-handed clampdown by the local authorities. In response to this event, the vast majority of Chinese netizens swarmed social media in sympathizing with the sex workers and lashing out at CCTV for picking on this particularly vulnerable group while avoiding what they deem as more serious social woes such as official corruption, environmental pollution and high unemployment. In another instance, on 28 December 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping was spotted eating steamed stuffed buns and conversing with commoners in a popular restaurant in Beijing, a rarity in Chinese political life, as the expected routine for top officials is to confine their activities to well-protected and carefully crafted domains the sight of which is only available to the populace through state television news and press photos. Also worthy of note is that this news was first microblogged as a chance encounter, accompanied by a few photos from carefully positioned angles. Some astute netizens quickly noticed that the news flow was not as spontaneous as it was claimed, as the Big Three were actually the first to repost the original microblog, minutes after it was published, in disseminating the news to a larger audience. Nonetheless, the unusual nature of this news made it the No. 1 trending topic on Weibo for days. It is highly suggestive that the state media, instead of following the usual practice of packaging the event as “protocol news” of state dignitaries, would resort to reporting this as a social media story.

Social media content, due to its user-centered and user-contributed nature, assumes a special place among Chinese netizens. Compared with their counterparts in most other countries, Chinese individuals display a much higher propensity to contribute to and rely on user-generated content. They are also more inclined to believe in their ability to effect change through online participation. The tightly controlled and closed nature of the conventional information environment, therefore, has the effect of channeling user interest and activities to the more free-wheeling online space.

Clay Shirky made the observation that digital media allows for the power of “organizing without organizations.” This is especially empowering in the context of social activism in China. The main reason is that an effective strategy that Chinese regime has adopted in recent decades has been to target and isolate (and sometimes punish) a small number of leaders and dissenters in derailing social and political movements that may be perceived incendiary and threatening. Collective action through mass collaboration and coordination without identifiable leaders, therefore, makes social activism achievable and sustainable in China in the networked era in which the authoritarian state still maintains a palpable and sometimes formidable presence.

An ancillary factor that has turned China into a hotbed of digital activism is the changing sociopolitical conditions in the wake of decades of marketization. Widening disparities among various sectors and social groups as well as divergent and often contradictory demands from different interest groups all increase the likelihood of popular contentions and mass protests.

Finally, the Chinese regime has largely turned a lenient eye to the emerging forms of digital activism, and, under many circumstances, self-organizing individuals have been successful in negotiating government accountability and extracting official reactions in redressing grievances and punishing selective offenders. It is worth highlighting that the focal points have been in relation to specific issues and local in scope in all these cases. Any type of effort to challenge the central authority or the legitimacy of the Party-state (i.e., calling for regime change), however, has not been tolerated thus far, and will likely be continuously dealt with in a heavy-handed manner in the foreseeable future.

Zixue Tai is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications, University of Kentucky, and author of The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society. Image credit: CC by TransCam/Flickr.

 

Raining on Xi Jinping’s parade in Macau

Written by Jackie Sheehan.

President Xi Jinping is in Macau for the 15th-anniversary celebrations of the territory’s transfer from Portuguese sovereignty to that of the PRC, December 1999’s much lower-key and less fraught handover which followed Hong Kong’s fractious reversion in July 1997. Public protest is rare in Macau, apart from a few recent strikes by casino workers feeling the pinch as Xi’s mainland anti-corruption campaign hits the revenues of Macau’s main, indeed very nearly its only, industry. While Xi is in town, though, the Macanese authorities are taking no chances, turning back an Occupy Central delegation from Hong Kong at the ferry terminal, and banning the opening or carrying of umbrellas in most venues, including the airport.

For since Occupy Central adopted the umbrella as its symbol, pressed into use to protect student demonstrators from pepper spray and tear gas on the very first of 75 nights of street protest and occupation from September to December 2014, the humble yellow dome has joined the PRC’s collection of politically-taboo household objects. Beijingers showed their disapproval of Deng Xiaoping’s June 4 suppression of the 1989 democracy movement by smashing little bottles (xiao ping, a homophone for Deng’s given name), and when imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo was unable to attend his own Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2010, the iconic image of his award standing on an empty chair on the platform made chairs a forbidden term, so that sympathisers could make their feelings known by simply placing an empty chair outside their front door.

One Hong Kong journalist waiting for Xi’s arrival reports that “They said you couldn’t open umbrellas at the airport because it would affect the flights.” If civilians on the ground in sensible rain gear really are such a hazard to aviation, you’d think that planes would be falling out the sky every other day over Ireland, yet as I write, an orderly succession of aircraft passes in front of my window, somehow managing to negotiate the flight path into Cork Airport despite a profusion of brollies in the city’s streets. Other sources in Macau solicitously insisted that it was too windy to risk unfurling an umbrella, so perhaps some sort of Mary Poppins-style bird-strike incident was the real fear.

But since the CCP leadership’s control-freakery knows no bounds, perhaps future protest movements could be a bit more careful in their choice of symbol? Otherwise all sorts of other handy items will join the banned list and be unavailable to those folk who simply need to use them. If a Sensible Shoes Revolution were to come next, a whole generation of Hong Kongers could end up martyrs to their arches from having to avoid blighting their futures with a display of overtly political footwear.

Despite its playful, creative, and highly photogenic features, the Umbrella Revolution hasn’t been all fun and games for its participants. Many who were not prominent activists have found they are banned from travelling to the rest of the PRC, with potentially very serious consequences for their careers. But in its diversity, its admirable adherence to non-violence despite some extreme provocation, and its determination to continue the fight for a meaningful choice of candidates at the next election for Chief Executive despite the dismantling of all three Occupy sites, it has been the bright spot in an otherwise grim year for democratization and human rights in China.

While the central government in Beijing stressed the illegality of the movement (though Hong Kong’s authorities hid behind private companies bringing injunctions against the protest camps for obstruction of public rights of way, rather than exercising their right to take over the actions, which would have given the activists their day in court) and accused it of “seriously undermining Hong Kong’s social order, economy, democratic progress and rule of law”, the world saw students sitting under streetlamps on the traffic-free roads to do their homework, picking up their own litter, and when the last camps were finally cleared, folding up their own tents, and generally not looking at all like a chaotic rabble bent on malice and destruction. The reduced traffic in Hong Kong during the movement notably improved the air quality, too, the clouds clearing so that, ironically, umbrellas were not needed.

The scale of the mobilization at its peaks this year has made plain the strong sense of a specifically Hong Kong identity now existing in the territory, as well as the significant grievances shared by many ordinary citizens priced out of its much-vaunted prosperity as well as excluded from choosing its leaders. Renewed activism and protest in Hong Kong in 2015 is thus as certain a prospect as precipitation – rainy days will surely come again, and so will those hopeful yellow umbrellas.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork, and a CPI blog Regular Contributor. Image Cedit: CC by Tom Bricker/Flickr

Splits emerge in protest ranks as Hong Kong stand-off continues

Written by Michel Hockx.

The umbrellas were out in full force on Monday night in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong – but mainly because it was actually raining. A few hundred people, myself included, had shown up to listen to speeches by student leaders and activists.

Many of the people around me were young, some very young, including quite a few wearing school uniforms and proudly sporting yellow ribbons and matching umbrellas.

On the makeshift stage in the cordoned-off area known as “Umbrella Plaza”, several speakers climbed ladders from where they addressed the crowd. Those calling for more violent action had their faces covered. At some point open disagreement broke out between two speakers, with the crowd shouting their support for either side.

Eventually the main student leaders took to the stage and apologised for the miscalculated escalation of the movement the night before. The students had galvanised the crowd to push towards the nearby government buildings, only to be beaten back by police using batons and pepper spray.

Spirit of peaceful protest lost

Many had been disappointed by the provocative move. Reporters from the South China Morning Post – whose coverage throughout has been excellent – recorded widespread disappointment among demonstrators that the spirit of peaceful protest had come to an end.

As I write I see a new announcement. The leaders of Scholarism, one of the three main protest groups, representing mainly secondary school pupils, have decided to go on hunger strike.

Since I arrived in Hong Kong last Friday night, many people have told me that this will be the last week of the protests. Various reasons are given but foremost among them is increasing public dissatisfaction with the stalemate between the protesters and the Hong Kong government, which involves the continued closure of a main road in a very busy part of the city. The daily traffic jams and delays in getting to or from work are starting to annoy even those people who rationally sympathise with the movement.

The older activists, being public intellectual figures who came up with the idea to “Occupy Central”, have also gone on record saying they would end their protest this coming week and think of new ways to pursue the point that it is all about: achieving genuine universal suffrage for the 2017 elections.

Then there are those who believe that the government wants to clear away the protesters’ camp before Christmas. It seems unlikely, though, that the government will see the need to change its waiting game as long as support for the movement is dwindling of its own accord.

Occupation tests public patience

It is hard to say how widespread the support still is. Some people here assure me that the demonstrations never represented the views of a large majority. Opinion was always split between those wanting to challenge the Hong Kong authorities (and those in Beijing), those who feel that antagonising Beijing is the wrong course of action, those who worry about their vested business interests with mainland China, and those who simply don’t care either way.

Even the media landscape here is mixed. When I turn on my television I see Hong Kong-based channels that report on the movement at length and with sympathy, as well as channels that dismiss it as an “illegal occupation”.

Outside the protest areas life goes on. Millions of people go about their business without giving the movement much thought. Many say they hope it will conclude peacefully. They do not want to see the young students come to harm, but many also insist that the rule of law is what matters most – and keeping a main street occupied for so long is against the law.

From my personal perspective, walking along the occupied road before the violence flared, reading the slogans, laughing about the puns and the cartoons, and admiring the organisation and cleanliness of the tent village that sprang up along a major traffic artery, I could not help but be impressed.

The reality of one country, two systems

Yes, there is a stalemate. Yes, the student demands are unrealistic and will not be met. Yes, there is a chance that this will all end very badly, but still what I was watching was something that could never be seen anywhere else in China.

Last week I was in Shanghai, where information about the events in Hong Kong is tightly controlled. More significantly, nobody seems to care even if they do get the information. Mainland Chinese widely consider the Hong Kongese to be “spoiled” and in some sense they are. If protests like this were attempted in Shanghai, the authorities would end them within a day.

This is the reality of “one country, two systems”. The Hong Kong system really is different. Having direct elections for the Chief Executive in 2017, even without universal suffrage, will still increase rather than decrease the gap in democratic mechanisms between the mainland and Hong Kong.

The real problem therefore is, as one of my conversation partners here put it to me, not how to operate the “two systems” but how eventually to fit them into “one country”.

Michel Hockx is Professor and Director of the SOAS China Institute. He tweets . This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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