It started with a public outcry spreading over the internet, followed by stern official rebukes, after mainland Chinese netizens noticed the Marriott International hotel chain listing Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet as independent countries in a questionnaire it sent to customers.
That turned out to be only the beginning of a rule-setting campaign to ensure respect for China’s sovereignty.
In another development in Hong Kong, former lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai was sacked by Polytechnic University for desecrating the national and Hong Kong flags during a Legislative Council meeting last year.
They were separate cases but the message was the same: from now there will be a price to pay for showing disrespect for China’s territorial integrity.
This is not just the official line, but a sentiment shared by many ordinary Chinese people. So is it patriotism or populism?
There has long been a perception among certain political pundits at home and abroad that Beijing usually tries to whip up public sentiment to advance government agenda, but that line of thinking can be quite mistaken these days.
The Marriott controversy is a good example and a timely reminder to both foreign investors and political figures, including Hong Kong’s opposition pan-democrats.
Over the weekend, the Chinese Foreign Ministry weighed in to warn all foreign enterprises to “respect China’s sovereignty … and the Chinese people’s feelings”.
Beijing took it a step further with China National Tourism Administration deputy director Wang Xiaofeng meeting Craig Smith, president and managing director of Asia Pacific for Marriott, demanding the group conduct a thorough investigation into the matter. The hotel group was also asked to deal with a member of staff who gave a “like” to a pro-Tibet independence Twitter message and later shared it with others.
The official People’s Daily on Saturday ran a strongly worded commentary stressing that no one should be allowed to cross this “red line”. It also pointed out that the Marriott case was just the tip of the iceberg, as media reports soon dragged others into the spotlight for offending Chinese sentiment.
Is Beijing overreacting by rebuking the offending parties and ordering a nationwide check on all foreign companies’ use of such terminology? Are these companies really intent on “splitting” China or just being politically ignorant?
The answers may vary depending on who is talking, but one thing for sure is, it’s not only the government taking offence at such slights, careless or intentional – many ordinary Chinese people feel just as strongly about it, and it’s not because they are merely following the official line.
That explains why mainland netizens hailed Polytechnic University’s decision not to renew Cheng’s contract as the right call, regardless of his “political prosecution” claims.
The concept of a red line when it comes to sovereignty is familiar enough for Hongkongers. President Xi Jinping made it loud and clear, in his July 1 speech last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to the motherland, that nothing can compromise sovereignty – a stern warning to those advocating the idea of independence for Hong Kong.
Like it or not, growing scrutiny from Chinese citizens across the border reflects a simple, if hard, truth: prevailing practices that were not taken too seriously in the past are now becoming unacceptable.
This refers to even seemingly harmless things, such as Hongkongers referring to the mainland as “the Chinese side”, or talking about “Hong Kong-China relations” instead of the more politically correct “Hong Kong-mainland relations”. Even if it’s something that Hongkongers are used to and not in any way suggesting the city is separate from the rest of China.
The writing is on the wall, it seems, and it says, “Enough is enough.”