On July 31, when Democrats and Republicans reached a last-minute compromise on the United States' debt, Chinese state-owned media openly blasted the U.S., railed against the failures of the West, and used the American political crisis to warn Chinese citizens about the dangers of democracy.
Generally, the millions of citizens active on Chinese microblogs welcome such criticism of the U.S. and the West. Before the debt deal, they had routinely voiced their anger and derision at the U.S. over the debt crisis. But contrary to the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party officials who control the state media, ordinary Chinese microbloggers think they deserve a say in China’s public affairs.
This tension between a democracy-phobic Party and millions of microbloggers is becoming increasingly palpable in China. After the recent high-speed train accident at Wenzhou, public push-back against official state voices isn't surprising. And now netizens are openly challenging Chinese officials' online statements as well.
Of all the state-owned Chinese media, none is more popular than the Global Times: a nationalist paper operated by the People’s Daily, the self-proclaimed official Party mouthpiece. Following the U.S. debt deal, the Global Times provided some of the most biting anti-Western, anti-democratic commentary in China. On August 9, for example, the editors wrote:
The West can no longer cover up its problems. Large numbers of immigrants have poured into the West; an aging population is bringing escalating pressure on the economy; the rise of emerging powers is challenging Western dominance. However, the West only tries to deal with these problems by highlighting past achievements. Political reform is unlikely to make any more progress in the U.S. than in other countries -- despite the illusion of change that comes as parties rotate with elections … Western countries are losing the authority of their democratic system.
The Global Times is widely assumed to represent a significant constituency within the Chinese Communist Party. Rarely do Party members amplify such jingoistic commentary on their personal microblog accounts. But Mei Xinyu, a senior researcher at China’s Ministry of Commerce, is an exception.
When speaking with Chinese and foreign journalists, Mei normally offers them balanced commentary on business issues. However, on his Sina Weibo account, he is a fiercely nationalistic microblogger, frequently tweeting about the failures of the United States, the West and democracy in general.
Take, for example, Mei's reaction to the July 22 massacre in Norway. Ever since the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese human rights activist, in Oslo, the Scandinavian country has been decidedly unpopular with the Party leadership -- and with those Chinese who are aware of Liu Xiaobo and the award.
Official Chinese reaction to the massacre was muted. But Mei Xinyu couldn't resist commenting on it. Shortly after news of the carnage began to circulate on Chinese microblogs, he implied in a Sina Weibo tweet that Norway had provoked the tragedy: “Hasn’t this country very much supported the old Dalai Lama … Chechen terrorists and the like? I fear this shooting incident is divine condemnation!”
Mei was not shy in suggesting that the problem stemmed from Norway's coddling of religious minorities:
If they continue to carry on this way, it is not impossible that Eastern Turkestan extremists, Chechens and the like will establish a "Scandinavian Norway-stan."
Chinese netizens' backlash against Mei's tweet was immediate and widespread.
Xue Biqun, a well-known investor, summarized the reactions of many when he tweeted: “As a researcher at the Ministry of Commerce, Mr. Mei has shamed public servants by making such a statement!”
Liu Hao, a reporter at the independent, Hunan-based Xiaoxiang Morning Herald, harshly criticized Mei's comment on Weibo and directly targeted the Party’s foreign policy choices: “If there is such a thing as divine condemnation, what will be the divine condemnation for China’s past support of Pol Pot, and current support of Kim Jong Il?”
Liu couldn't print such scorn in his privately-held newspaper.
In the face of such condemnation, Mei erased his offending tweet. Only hours later, on July 23, China’s microbloggers' attention shifted to the high-speed rail crash. This likely saved Mei from a growing wave of their angry, shaming counter-arguments.
Despite the nationalistic fervor of his Sina Weibo account, Mei has been a go-to source for Chinese and foreign journalists during the U.S. debt crisis. Most of the time, he has been depicted as a mild-mannered, sensible Ministry of Commerce bureaucrat. Unlike his boisterous demeanor on Sina Weibo, he is generally low-key when speaking directly with foreign journalists.
For instance, on August 1, Mei had this to say to a Dow Jones Newswire reporter regarding the U.S. debt deal:
The compromise between the Republicans and the Democrats is within expectations, but it's not enough to help investors regain confidence in Treasuries or the dollar. [It] still leaves open so many uncertainties that it is difficult for investors to maintain confidence in the U.S.
Now consider the far less diplomatic quote on his Sina Weibo account on August 3:
The fight over the debt limits has revealed one of the ugliest sides of Uncle Sam's political system -- taking an opportunity to kidnap the whole country for a ransom of their own political interests … If the U.S. declines in the future, their opponents should vigorously defend this characteristic of the U.S. political system, so as to weaken the Americans by the hands of the Americans. We ought to take this matter as a negative example in the case that Chinese politics follows a similarly suicidal path.
Curiously, the Chinese netizens' reaction to the anti-democratic nature of Mei’s tweet was almost uniformly negative.
For example, A. Liang, a Sina Weibo user, responded:
The official media of China has a unique feature: once there is a controversial problem in American domestic politics, they must say that the U.S. government will take this opportunity to make a profit for the election. But shouldn't you envy that they have an election?
In another response to Mei, Sina Weibo user, Highland Wolf, saw merit in the debt deadlock -- well beyond what most Americans discerned from the crisis:
American politicians' quarrelling on the debt limit is precisely one of the brightest aspects. Every decision needs to be discussed amply and to be fully understood by the nation. The heavens will not fall … Researcher Mei, you are worrying too much.
Chinese officials are quickly learning that while the public may routinely celebrate the West's decline, they’re increasingly enamored with free speech -- especially now that microblogs give netizens a platform to challenge Party officials' views.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com
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