BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Hu Jintao called on Saturday for stricter government management of the Internet while calls for gatherings inspired by uprisings in the Middle East spread on Chinese websites abroad.
The messages have scant chance of inspiring protests in China whose one-party government has plenty of censorship controls in place and where most Chinese have difficulty gaining access to overseas websites because of a censorship "fire wall."
But Hu told a meeting attended by top Communist Party leaders that despite rising prosperity, China was facing deepening social conflicts that would test the party's ability to maintain firm control.
Hu did not mention the Internet-fed unrest that has shaken authoritarian governments across the Middle East and unseated Egypt's long-time President Hosni Mubarak. But he told Chinese officials they needed to come to grips with "virtual society" in their nation with some 450 million Internet users.
"At present, our country has an important strategic window for development, but is also in a period of magnified social conflicts," Hu told the meeting at the Central Party School in northwest Beijing, which trains rising leaders.
Among the steps Beijing had to take to counter these risks, Hu said, one was "further strengthening and improving management of the Internet, improving the standard of management of virtual society, and establishing mechanisms to guide online public opinion."
His comments came as messages spread overseas calling for gatherings across China on Sunday to demand sweeping democratic reforms inspired by the "Jasmine Revolution" in the Middle East.
"Launch political reform and end one-party dictatorship, free up the press for freedom of news," said a message that proposed gatherings in 13 Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.
The calls underscored why China's government, ruling the world's biggest Internet-using population, is wary of loosening controls on online expression.
The latest battleground over Chinese Internet control is Twitter-like local websites where users shoot out bursts of 140 or so Chinese characters of opinion that censors can have a hard time keeping up with.
The biggest of these Chinese sites, run by Sina.com, has blocked discussion of Egypt. On Saturday, message chains using the Chinese word for "Jasmine" -- as in the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East -- were blocked too.
The overseas Chinese "Boxun" website (www.peacehall.com) that spread the calls for gatherings on Sunday was down on Saturday night Beijing time.
At that time, too, there were no outward signs of increased security around Wangfujing, the main shopping street in central Beijing where the online calls urged a gathering the next day.
Several prominent rights activists and lawyers have been detained over recent days, according to their families.
But Jin Bianling, the wife of Jiang Tianyong, a rights lawyer who has energetically challenged the government, said she saw no clear connection with his latest detention on Saturday and the online calls for protests.
"Some people have said to me it's about those calls (for gatherings)," she told Reuters.
"But I think it was the other things he's been doing. There are too many reasons they can use to detain people."
(Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee and Michael Martina; editing by Michael Roddy)
During the first weekend of April 2023, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will hold its semiannual General Conference in Salt Lake City. Tens of thousands of members will attend in person, with millions watching from home.
Over two days, Latter-day Saints – often called “Mormons” – will hear an array of talks from religious leadership. But another speaker will likely be a member of the church’s auditing department, who, if he follows tradition, will state that the institution’s financial activities from the past year were “administered in accordance with Church-approved budgets, accounting practices, and policies.” No further specifics are typically provided.
This yearly ritual may seem striking in the face of the church’s February 2023 agreement to pay a US$5 million fine in a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. According to its press release, the SEC concluded that the church went to “great lengths” to “obscure” its investment portfolio. A church statement expressed “regret” that its leaders had followed faulty legal counsel and insisted that the fine would be paid through “investment returns” rather than members’ donations.
The settlement came on the heels of other controversies about the church’s taxes and financial portfolio, which journalists and whistleblowers have estimated at around $100 billion.
These revelations have raised questions concerning the ethics of a religious organization amassing such a large amount of wealth, and how it is balanced with charitable giving. But headlines often overlook the long and surprising history of the modern church’s financial success – as well as the continued anxiety surrounding its economic reserves.
Share and share alike
Mormonism was born through the spiritual quest of Joseph Smith, who was raised amid America’s Second Great Awakening during the early 1800s, a period of Christian revivals. His parents were religious seekers who struggled to find a fulfilling church, and tussled with the young country’s financial turbulence. Smith’s father had lost savings in an ill-fated ginseng deal, plunging the family into two decades of poverty.
It is no surprise, then, that when Smith formed his own church, its teachings included a sharp critique of the capitalist system. Early converts to what was originally called the Church of Christ, organized in 1830, were encouraged to consecrate all their goods to their new religious community so it could redistribute resources to those in need.
Yet financial difficulties, personal clashes and other challenges doomed the experiment from the start. Within just a few years, the new church’s leaders had already abandoned the consecration ideal. In its stead, Smith directed members to donate “surplus property” to help pay off the group’s immediate debts and then to donate “one tenth of all their interests annually.” This commandment commenced a practice of tithing that still exists today, though it has been interpreted in different ways over the years.
Facing financial ruin, the church’s prophet and president in 1899, Lorenzo Snow, urged members to redouble their commitment to tithing. The church formalized its expectation that members donate 10% of their annual income to remain in good standing. To this day, Latter-day Saints are expected to meet with local bishops every year and state that they have paid a full tithe.
By 1907, Snow’s successor, Joseph F. Smith, jubilantly announced that tithing income had paid off all the church’s loans. He even predicted that if the current rate continued, “we expect to see the day when we will not have to ask you for one dollar of donation for any purpose.”
Bust to boom
Donations only increased over the following decades, however, as the church continued to grow rapidly. The prosperity of the 1950s enabled an ambitious construction agenda for the next decade, as the church built over a thousand new meetinghouses and temples for its exploding membership.
Yet high spending, poor financial management and unwise or unlucky investments brought another financial crisis, and the church soon found itself cash-poor. By 1962, the budget had amassed a $32 million deficit. Leaders ceased offering detailed financial reports, which had been inconsistent yet common staples at the church’s General Conference.
Decades of membership growth, tithing donations and lucrative investments resulted in the modern church’s massive accumulation of wealth. This financial success has enabled it to oversee a worldwide church with nearly 17 million members of record, tens of thousands of employees and countless volunteer and charitable programs.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ historic temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Its investments became so profitable in the early 2000s that, according to the SEC report, church leaders explored ways to shield their success from the public. According to one whistleblower, church authorities feared that greater transparency would discourage members from further tithing.
Giving to God
While the church reports giving over $1 billion in charitable aid last year, some members and observers alike critique leaders for not donating more, given the vast size of its investment portfolio, which is almost twice the size of Harvard’s endowment.
The issue also raises important ethical questions regarding a religious institution’s obligations toward its own members. Should Latter-day Saints, especially those who are struggling financially, still donate a tenth of their income to a church whose reserves are likely deep enough to pay off more than a decade of expenses? The seeming discrepancy between the transparency required of individual members and the church’s own lack of accountability has unsettled some members.
Yet many believers emphasize that their tithing’s purpose is not merely to add to the church’s coffers but to help build the kingdom of God – their donations are primarily offered for spiritual reasons, not worldly ones. And investments are also a safety net for the faith’s growth: Leaders likely hope it can support rapidly growing membership in lower-income countries.
As absurd as it may be to call a $100 billion dollar portfolio a “rainy day” fund, the church’s turbulent history may have led leaders to see it as just that.
The About Face Beauty Spa in Royal Oak, Michigan, a quiet suburb north of Detroit, offers a variety of skin and body services, from $10 lip waxing to a $150 “bridal make-up” session.
But while owner Robin Manoogian generally caters to a local clientele, you’ve likely seen her work.
That’s because the Republican National Committee has paid the beauty spa more than $17,000 in recent years to do Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel’s hair and make-up ahead of the powerful Michigander’s many appearances on national television.
The payments to Manoogian’s spa are just a fraction of the more than $72,000 the RNC has paid various beauty professionals since 2017, when McDaniel became chairwoman, according to a Raw Story analysis of federal campaign finance data. They include several in the Washington, D.C., area, where McDaniel also spends significant amounts of time.
Describing McDaniel as “a delight to work with” and possessing "the most beautiful bone structure and sparkling eyes,” Manoogian told Raw Story she routinely meets the RNC chairwoman on-location at Detroit television studios.
“When she's got a live interview, we just keep working. Rain, sleet, snow,” said Manoogian, adding she totes a beauty kit with her for her appointments with McDaniel. “You know, the hit is scheduled for a certain time frame and she's got to be in the chair mic'ed ready with not a hair out of place. In and out. Done and done.”
The RNC’s hair-and-make-up spending comes at a time when the Republican Party is courting blue-collar voters and lambasting President Joe Biden for what conservative leaders assert is an elitist and ineffectual economic policy that’s causing “nothing but pain and misery for American families.”
And it’s the latest example in a storied string of prominent political figures — both Democrats and Republicans — who’ve enjoyed top-shelf pampering while simultaneously wooing the proletariat.
An RNC spokeswoman defended the committee’s hair-and-makeup spending, which it characterized in federal campaign finance filings as “media preparation.”
“These payments were for hair and make-up for TV appearances for GOP voices, and as chairwoman of the RNC, part of the job is to spread our great Republican message on the airwaves,” RNC spokesperson Emma Vaughn told Raw Story. “It is incredibly sexist of Raw Story to attempt to smear women in politics for getting their hair and make-up done for TV appearances, something that has been done by men on both sides of the aisle for decades without criticism.”
But there has been criticism, often from Republicans.
In 2015, prominent Republicans panned then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — perennially on television — for a $600 hair appointment at the posh John Barrett Salon in New York City, which put part of the Bergdorf Goodman department store on lockdown.
Then-GOP presidential frontrunner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker tweeted a list entitled “The Economics of Hillary’s $600 Haircut.” The money spent on Clinton’s coiffure could buy a family “138 pounds of beef” or “buy four years’ supply of eggs,” Walker asserted. Hashtag: “#OutOfTouch.”
The College Republicans tweeted two photos of Clinton, her hair shorter and sleeker in the second image. “Before and After @HillaryClinton's $600 haircut #WeCanDoBetter,” it read.
In another tweet, the College Republicans scoffed: “.@HillaryClinton's $600 haircut: meanwhile college students struggling to pay for books this semester #WeCanDoBetter”
“I don’t care. I’m a person that tells the truth,” Trump said. “You know it was interesting to see but I’ve never seen Hillary with that hairdo so I think that’s an OK thing to say, but it was very different.”
More recently, Trump slammed the Super Bowl halftime performance of Rihanna, a longtime critic of the former president.
"Without her 'Stylist' she'd be NOTHING. Bad everything, and NO TALENT!" Trump wrote on his Truth Social site.
There's a fine line between what the public will consider a legitimate political expense and a personal extravagance.
"If political donors knew their contributions would be funding $16,000+ spa retreats, $1,000+ haircuts, and thousands of dollars for suits, dresses, and makeup, many of these contributors likely wouldn't donate," said Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, a government accountability group. "While these expenses likely aren't illegal, these examples show how big money continues to dominate politics and funds lavish lifestyles for certain political figures. We need reforms like those contained in the Freedom to Vote Act to get big money out of politics to help elevate the voices of everyday Americans in politics."
The COVID-19 era proved that TV talking heads, stuck in their living rooms and home offices with studios off-limits, could still do national media hits without the help of professional artists.
One prominent politician — Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) — boasted in a fundraising message to donors about his cut-rate approach to grooming.
“Just like my $12 flattop haircut from my local barbershop back home and my collection of dirt-stained t-shirts, my background is a big part of the reason I remain grounded and focused amid the partisan politics and nonsense happening in our government,” Tester said.
Nevertheless, politicians of all stripes will sometimes use donors’ campaign cash — often a little, occasionally a lot — to put on their best face.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) paid a makeup artist $300 in August 2022. When Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland represented New Mexico in the U.S. House, she once spent $275 on a makeup artist.
And when Carla Sands, who served as an ambassador to Denmark during the Trump administration, ran for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania in 2022, she labeled her $845 makeup artist as "media prep.”
There are others: Rep. Emilia Sykes (D-OH) spent less than $300 on "media prep" at Macy's and Dillards. During her 2014 and 2016 campaigns, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat-turned-independent who now works as a Fox News contributor, spent just under $7,000 in campaign cash for makeup and hair expenses.
Raw Story also examined Rep. Nancy Pelosi's expenses, finding that among her campaign accounts and political PAC, the former Democratic House speaker used campaign money to fund $2,900 worth of makeup and hair expenses between 2014 and 2024.
But according to campaign finance reports, the former speaker didn’t regularly use political or campaign cash to have her makeup and hair done for public appearances. Rather, she paid for it out of her own pocket and not at the donors’ expense.
Pelosi’s appointments continued to make news during the past decade. Fox News, for example, reported on Pelosi having her hair done in San Francisco on Aug. 31, 2020 — during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when trips to the beauty salon or barber shop came with perceived risk.
Campaign finance reports show that during the same month, the RNC paid District Bridal Company of Washington, D.C., $2,496 for hair and makeup services.
In the midst of these hair and makeup expenditures, the Republican National Committee stands apart for the frequency and amount of money it spends for such services, Raw Story’s analysis of federal campaign finance data indicates.
Among the charges the RNC had for hair and makeup includes $750 for a Michigan salon and a “celebrity” makeup artist that appears to work with Fox, who charged $2,546.97.
In the case of one makeup artist, who was paid $1,560 in 2018 and $778 in 2017, the same person was listed on OpenSecrets for "travel expenses," totaling $3,473 in 2017.
The RNC told Raw Story that, by its count, the DNC spent over $47,000 in hair and makeup expenses during the 2021-2022 election cycle.
The DNC refused to comment for this story. But a person familiar with the DNC expenditures told Raw Story the costs are not just for hair and makeup but for a variety of people and purposes.
FEC data indicated the DNC lists hair and makeup expenses using the catch-all term “event production,” which also includes site rentals, stage set-ups, lighting, filming, and event consultants for conventions. It’s all mixed together, making it difficult to suss out the exact amount out of the $167,817 of “event production” for the past decade.
The names of hair and makeup vendors that appear in the DNC’s financial disclosures also for the past year match the names of makeup artists that have posted photos touting their work with first lady Jill Biden during the 2020 campaign for her photoshoot with Vanity Fair.
Another DNC expense during the 2021-2022 years comes from the hair and makeup company Conceptual Beauty.
While they haven’t posted any photos of their work with political leaders in the past two years, they did share pics of Pelosi, tagging the location of the photos as the Capitol Visitor’s Center following Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.
Many of the DNC's hired hair and makeup artists are proud to publicly promote their clients, whether political or media. But DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison never turned up in the social media images for these hair and makeup artists.
It doesn’t mean he hasn’t utilized any services — but there’s no federal record indicating such expenditures have occurred. The DNC declined to comment on Harrison, as well.
The artist was hired via the communications department during Anthony Scaramucci’s short tenure. Then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ makeup changed enough during her time in front of the cameras that comedian Michelle Wolf joked about her “perfect smoky eye” during a White House Correspondents Association dinner.
‘Personal image to maintain’
According to Manoogian, McDaniel has never physically visited her spa in Michigan.
And while McDaniel may rank among Manoogian's most notable clients — the late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin is another — Manoogian told Raw Story that she has worked for decades doing hair and makeup for television programs and more recently did the makeup for an episode of NBC show “Dateline.”
Manoogian’s spa website explained that she has worked for numerous clients and network television during her nearly 40 years in the business.
Manoogian emphasized that the money she’s made from the RNC came over a six-year period and that she does McDaniel's makeup and hair every time she's appearing on television from Michigan. Most cable news networks have their own hair and makeup staff in New York and Washington, but that might not be the case at the affiliates where the guest, such as McDaniel, appears via satellite.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel appears on Fox News in November 2018.
RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel appears on CNN in February 2023.
"I absolutely just go to the studio facility prior to the interview to handle getting her ready, and that's my craft," Manoogian explained. "I mean, with six years together, do the math. When she's in D.C., I know she's got her normal crew but, I know she travels all the time, so she's either coming or going."
Manoogian clarified that she has a "kit" and drives directly to the studio to meet McDaniel each time.
"It's not much per year for how many visits there are," Manoogian said. "And essentially, you have to go where the satellite is to reach the national, live. It's standard."
Manoogian also explained that one of the biggest problems with television is that it takes a three-dimensional world and renders it in two dimensions, which is why people always look like they've gained weight on camera. Light reflecting off the oils on the face also contributes. So, the most important thing a person can do when appearing on camera is to ensure there's no shine, she said.
“As a professional, you have a personal image to maintain, just like movie stars," Manoogian told Raw Story.
Former President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards (D-NC)Photos by Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia and Peter Smith/Flickr
In a political era where the image is often everything, one can trace modern grooming and beauty brouhahas to President Bill Clinton, who once shut down part of Los Angeles International Airport with Air Force One’s engines running so his mononymous Beverly Hills hairstylist, Cristophe, could board the presidential jet and tend to the commander-in-chief’s salt-and-pepper locks.
Democrat John Edwards, a U.S. senator and 2004 and 2008 presidential candidate, drew gasps and pearl-clutching when this “son of a mill worker,” who championed impoverished Americans, used $1,250 worth of donor dollars to bankroll a traveling hairstylist who tended to his Kennedy-like coiffe.
During the 2008 campaign, the RNC spent $150,000 not on hair and makeup but on a wardrobe for vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin and her family, Politico reported at the time. Ahead of the Republican Convention in Minneapolis that year, the committee spent $75,062.63 at Neiman Marcus.
Trump’s White House didn’t use political donors’ money to handle hair and makeup, however.
Taxpayers funded Trump’s White House hiring a full-time artist to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and handle anyone there who appeared on television.
The RNC’s first financial report for 2023, covering spending in January, indicated more spending with Manoogian’s business, as well as other vendors that provide various hair, makeup and eyelash services — although it’s unclear exactly what services they provided the RNC.
Since the conclusion of the 2022 midterms, the RNC dropped another $3,867 on hair and makeup costs in January 2023. In February 2023, they had another $1,725 payment to the Michigan spa. It’s a total of $5,592 for 2023. The Democratic Party has spent $4,333.25 on "event production" during the same time period.
That put the Republican Party over $90,000 in donor-funded hair and makeup expenditures since McDaniel took over.
The RNC told Raw Story that they don’t intend to change their process of spending donor funds on the chair’s hair and makeup.
Tyranny expert Timothy Snyder, a Yale University professor and author, explained that the contemporary Republican Party has a startling number of characteristics that they're adopting from fascists and authoritarians — and also from the communists they claim to oppose.
Speaking to Ali Velshi on Wednesday, Snyder addressed the recent alarm raised by retired Judge Michael Luttig, claiming that the American democracy is still in peril and there is no end to the threat in sight.
Snyder explained that the interesting thing seen in the 21st Century is that everyone is trying to claim to be a democracy. Russia claims have claimed in the past it's a democracy. Their use of the word is an attempt to erode the understanding of it, he said. It's part of their design.
Looking at Ukraine's success, he explained it's about the cooperation of a unified country intent on fighting a potential oppressor.
"It's the habit of resistance," Snyder said. "It's the habit of cooperation that allows the army to do so well. That's a lesson for other societies. Why did Netanyahu have to pull back in Israel? Because Israelis are finally getting on the streets in large numbers and they are making their voices known as a society. Democracy is about muscle. It's about movement. It's about people taking a stand together. If you wait for the institutions to save you, then it's already too late."
Velshi brought up Judge Luttig again and noted that he's not a "hair on fire" kind of guy. He's a conservative Republican, and he's very concerned about the American democracy at risk. The concern he has, and it's something Snyder shares, is in convincing people that the risk is real.
Velshi cited Donald Trump's claim, for the second time in a month, "I am your retribution." As Velshi explained, "It's the language of autocracy."
"It's also the language of fascism," said Snyder. "Living in a 'Big Lie' is being a fascist. Saying that I have an alternative truth for you, an alternative reality where you can live, saying that politics is all about naming the enemy and taking revenge, that is basically a fascist reality that we're talking about."
He said that those who care about democracy should remember the 20th Century.
"When I look at Florida, I have to say, what I think about is Communism," Snyder said. "The book bans, and the public gatherings, and the singling out of authors, and the denunciations — like it's funny, all of this stuff is supposed to be anti-Communist, but as a historian of Communism, that reminds me of some of the basic things that were wrong about Communism. Those denunciations and book bannings and getting people all rallied up about authors that are supposedly contaminating other people. So, I think we have to be ready to name some names and describe some practices. And we also have to say positively that in a democracy we don't do those things, but we do other things, and those other things are actually better and make for a better sort of life."