The Chinese Communist Party’s confected outrage machine
14 Oct 2019|

A basketball official, a big gaming company, Tiffany jewellers and Apple have all apparently ‘hurt the feelings of the Chinese people’ by either saying something in support of the Hong Kong protesters or allowing their products to be used by protesters or people who support them. It’s all so petty and yet so important.

We need to notice the sheer ridiculousness of this claim.

The notion of 1.4 billion Chinese people having a single set of feelings is simply nonsensical. So is the idea that 1.4 billion Chinese people are all taking the time to notice what a gamer playing Hearthstone thinks about Hong Kong.

The ‘hurt feelings’ of Chinese people is merely a subtext of the Chinese Communist Party’s core narrative, carrying resonances of the century of humiliation. The CCP acts as the self-appointed mouthpiece of a citizenry it has rendered voiceless.

Despite basketball’s popularity in China, it’s insane to believe that 1.4 billion people without extensive internet access are fixated on and outraged by a Houston Rockets administrator’s tweets. Let alone that this mass of people are taking the time to think through how a Tiffany ad with a model holding one hand in front of an eye might pose a risk to Beijing’s rule and getting just plain mad as a result.

Yet, the American individual and companies responded as if it’s perfectly rational that their actions—and inactions—outraged and offended ‘the Chinese people’. It’s not. It’s insane.

We need to bell this cat and call out the sheer chutzpah of the Chinese authorities and state-owned media outlets that are channelling and stoking these claims.

There do indeed seem to be many Chinese ultra-nationalists who have been deeply immersed in the CCP’s decades-long ideological patriotic education program and who receive distorted, state-curated perspectives on Hong Kong and on the perfidy of Western companies and individuals. In the echo chamber that’s inside Chairman Xi Jinping’s Great Firewall, these radicalised Chinese ultra-nationalists have their angers and anxieties stoked and channelled by the state.

The NBA, Blizzard Entertainment, Tiffany and Apple all may well lose business and revenue in China because of this ridiculous yet palpable outrage, so it’s a serious business issue—which is exactly what the Chinese authorities want it to be.

However, Xi and his CCP are culpable for deliberately and cynically creating a population that reacts in this way when told that foreigners—or their own people in Hong Kong—are ‘hurting China’.

Their anger and ‘hurt feelings’ are not somehow natural products of humans responding spontaneously to their environment. They are artificially cultivated behaviours fostered, encouraged and enabled by the Chinese state. In effect, they’re an extension of the CCP’s power. The result is a new form of economic and political power that serves the purposes of the CCP. Xi has created another magic weapon that is at least as dangerous as his united front.

But that’s only true if those against whom this power is used don’t push back in two ways—over the sheer ridiculousness of the claim, and, more importantly, over CCP information control and propaganda that is creating this mass of motivated outrage in its own citizens, and then using it to great effect.

The only good news here is that the case of Hong Kong makes it pretty straightforward to sketch out how the CCP has curated and manipulated the information environment that got us here. The CCP has controlled how the mass protests in Hong Kong are portrayed in mainland China, labelling protesters as radical and violent—terrorists acting against the Chinese people. This has set the scene for Chinese citizens to react to the Rockets official’s tweet as if he were openly encouraging terrorism and violence in Hong Kong. And it also allows Chinese officials to denounce companies that are supporting the protesters—or even not actively working against them by disabling functionality on various apps and systems—on the grounds that they are also enabling violence.

We all seem to be forgetting that the reason there are increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong is that Beijing and its Hong Kong authorities are simply stonewalling very reasonable demands by Hong Kong’s people for an independent inquiry into police violence and arrests, and equally reasonable demands to have a system of government in Hong Kong that listens to the voices and views of the citizens who live there.

On top of this, Xi and Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam are also escalating police and paramilitary violence against the young, the old, the peaceful and the violent seemingly indiscriminately. So, the real enablers and creators of violence in Hong Kong are Xi and Lam. They are the ones outrage should be directed against.

The Hong Kong people’s demands are about universal issues of human freedom and rights that must be protected—including from abuse by their own governments.

The culprits here are not companies or individuals who cave in to this Chinese-state-driven pressure for fear of losing access to ‘the China market’. The real culprits are the 89 million members of the CCP who are weaponising their citizens’ emotions and then professing to represent their people when they denounce foreign companies and individuals.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether China is a developed market economy or not, but this cynical manipulation of citizens’ views and emotions shows that it is actually not so much a developed market as a disturbed and distorted one.

No World Trade Organization reform will sort this out. This is a deep political and ideological problem for the 6.2 billion people and their governments who live and operate outside Xi’s Great Firewall to confront.

As we’ve seen with other cases of Chinese state pressure against companies—from airlines to clothing manufacturers—if they’re left on their own they are simply overmatched. It is the job of other governments—which are the homes and bases of the increasingly large number of companies being cynically silenced and browbeaten by the CCP and its weaponised population—to speak up and stand up against this corrosive and cynical abuse of market power.

Doing so is about much more than protecting companies’ bottom lines and shareholders’ returns. It’s about stopping the kind of thought control and self-censorship that is so prevalent and effective in the CCP’s domain from spreading into our own societies.

We must not allow the CCP to create a world beyond its borders in which we all feel compelled not to think—and so not to say—what Beijing doesn’t want to hear. And we need to see this paranoid CCP behaviour for what it is: weakness and anxiety masquerading as power.