It is debacle that could have been lifted straight from Armando Iannucci’s satire about presidential politics in the United States, Veep.
Only it happened in China.
On October 16, Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosted a forum about art and literature in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The guest list was small and select, and included such luminaries as Nobel prize winning novelist Mo Yan and Farewell To My Concubine director Chen Kaige. But it was a 33 year-old nationalistic blogger called Zhou Xiaoping who ended up stealing the show when Xi praised him for “spreading positive energy”. A selfie that Zhou took with Xi in the background soon went viral online, further raising the profile of the young, “patriotic” writer.
The problem was that Zhou wasn’t really the independent, grass-roots blogger he was claimed to be.
Quite quickly netizens discovered – or remembered – that Zhou had already written several strange articles for a magazine belonging to the Party’s propaganda department. Some of his most anti-American essays seemed to be riddled with mistakes or events that looked like they were made up.
His missive “Broken Dreams in America” in which Zhou claimed that many US citizens were forced to eat “two slices of bread with pieces of ham, cheese, tomato and lettuce in between” for lunch because they can’t afford more expensive food or the cost of tips got a particular ripping. As did another effort entitled “Please don’t fail this era” in which he claimed that a woman from Henan was gang-raped by over 200 men because no one came to her aid when she was attacked in a New York subway station.
“Would this happen in China?” Zhou had asked rhetorically.
But netizens questioned if it had happened at all, pointing out that the tale seemed to be based on a film by Singaporean-born erotic movie star Annabel Chong.
“Please don’t publish this article again. I don’t believe that anyone who has a basic intellectual level would believe this crap,” wrote one.
Another said: “If this is positive energy, I need to go and find some of the negative kind.”
Of course, none of this reflected very well on President Xi, who had spoken so positively on Zhou’s behalf. So the censors were set furiously to work. First up, comments on social media mocking Zhou were expunged. But that wasn’t enough because Zhou’s essays were still in the public domain, not least because his anti-American following had reached almost half a million people on weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent. So the censors also had to go back and edit out the bits that less hawkish netizens had found so outrageous.
In one particularly contradictory move the self-styled ‘pseudo science-buster’ Fang Zhouzi was blocked from several social media sites as a penalty for picking apart Zhou’s essays only to find that the same pieces were later cleaned up to reflect many of his original criticisms.
A Xinhua story was scissored to bits too. In an attempt to sound more objective, the state media outlet had cited some of Zhou’s detractors. But then the state press came to the rescue, asking people to champion Zhou, despite his flaws. “The reason Zhou stands out is because there are not many people online spreading a positive attitude… Jealousy could be the reason those Big Vs [for more on these, see WiC209] are attacking him,” wrote the Global Times.
“A small flaw doesn’t ruin a good piece of jade,” the People’s Daily added in support. “You don’t have to agree with him, you can say his ideas are naive, his prose is stiff, you can even doubt his experiences, but you cannot doubt that Zhou is not doing any of this for himself.”
“Life in other countries may be good but we need the son that loves his mother even though she is ugly or the dog that loves his family even though it is poor. Young and confused people on the internet need a voice like Zhou’s to guide them through the haze,” it said.
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