The suicidal and voiceless

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The past few days I browsed the Internet trying to find someone who could speak from the standpoint of Yang Gailan, the 28-year-old farmer and mother of four, who committed suicide after slaughtering all her four kids by axing and force-feeding them pesticide. Her husband killed himself a few days after losing his entire family in a single day. The tragedy stunned, confused and angered a lot of people, who only slowly came to the gruesomeness of the case following the revelation of disturbing details of the struggling family living in the remote mountains of Gansu province, located in the arid far west of China, one of the poorest corners of the country.

The closest I could get is a blogpost by Luo Yufeng, a popular online figure who came from an abject background and made her name by intentionally posing herself as a buffoon that attracted wide disdain and ridicule. Lately, she emigrated to the United States and reinvented her public image as a hard-working self-made woman who successfully transformed her existence, materialistically and intellectually. In the blogpost she said she could relate to Yang’s situation, not just to her material poverty, but also to the “despair” that haunted people like her. She recalled her own experience as a countryside teacher, where her teenage female students dropped out of school to get married and raise kids. “They told me that going to college merely postponed the same misery of trying to locate a low-paying job and barely got by. At the age of 15, the girls already saw no hope in changing their circumstances. Sadly, many of them were actually right in their assessment.”

This is one of the rarer pieces in the aftermath of the tragedy that tries to make sense of it from a poor person’s point of view. As in most events that capture phenomenal online attention, the space is dominated by educated, urban (and largely male) voices. In a way, they help amplify the story to enable a wider discussion. But the limitations of a middle-class world view also risk trapping the debates in pathetic premises resembling the gated neighborhoods of Chinese cities.

The article that almost single-handedly turns the poor family’s death into a national subject of debate is called “The ants in a prosperous time“. In a broad stroke manner, the author attributes the tragedy to extreme poverty and the society’s diminishing opportunity for upward mobility. “They are the downtrodden ants in a time of prosperity, unimportant, uncared for, neglected.” It calls on the society to better treat its disadvantaged, marginal members and advocates for significantly increasing welfare for such social groups.

The sentiment is familiar, which probably explains why it went viral on people’s WeChat walls almost two weeks after the incident actually happened on Aug 26. Prior to that, media reports about the killing, particularly the one by The Paper, were restraint in its attribution of specific causes. Information was simply too scarce to reach any conclusion about why Yang Gailan wielded the ax at her own children. Her grandmother was the last person to talk to the dying woman. By that time all four children were unconscious. The last words from Yang, if her grandmother’s recollection was correct, were bitter and enigmatic. She muttered about being “hard pressed” and insisted of taking her kids “with her”. The last minutes of her life did not give her the luxury of elaborating further.

But this does not stop commentators from imposing their own mental frames onto the case. The “ant” piece is an example of a class-anxious social group looking through a pre-defined lens at tragedy whose meaning is far from clear. By framing the case as a failure of a social structure to provide upward mobility, the piece caters to people who are constantly fretting about maintaining and raising their social status. They share a disdain of elites that keep a tight grip on precious resources and sympathize with the society’s most disadvantageous members. But it is hard to tell if a woman in remote Gansu mountains, for whom poverty has been inherited and internalized as a mode of life for generations of her family, would be primarily driven by a sense of social justice.

Another typical urban response to the case is even more reductionist. People fixate on the details revealed by media of the material possessions of Yang’s family: three oxen, three goats, twelve chickens, plus the tiny stream of income from Yang’s husband, a laborer at a pig farm in a nearby town. To the online spectators who busy themselves with calculation, these seem to be far from the kind of extreme deprivation that would account for the desperate act of homicide and suicide.

By negating the “poverty” narrative, critics try to override an overall sympathetic reaction to the tragedy with a stricter moral judgment. “She is first and foremost a murderer,” as one influential online figure would emphasize. Others call her a pervert and a psychopath. The response is not new. As this blog has explored before, online commentary about violence committed by marginal communities is becoming increasingly unforgiving and harsh. The view insists that no personal misfortune, social ailment or political suppression could be used to justify aggression against others. While an indiscriminate denouncement of violence seems morally infallible, in the public sphere the uncompromising stance also tends to shut out serious discussions about root causes, which are often blamed for “rationalizing” violence.

Female suicide rate in the Chinese countryside is historically high, with rates hitting alarming levels in the 1990s, at points 26% higher than men in the countryside. Those rates have since then plummeted (as much as 90% by some studies) thanks to massive migration into the cities which results in relatively freer, more upbeat lives for women. However, for those who remain in the countryside, the day-to-day stress of life, not only poverty but also a host of pressures in relation to supporting the household which disproportionally fall on the shoulders of women, still can be unbearably heavy. As a traditional saying goes, there are only three solutions to women’s problems: “one – to cry; two – to scream; and three – to hang herself”.

When experienced observers look closer at the details dug out by in-depth reporting, what they discover is exactly the kind of suffocating household stress that has cornered Yang Gailan to a brink. In a penetrating analysis of the micro-politics of Yang’s misery, the author sifts through publicly available information and singles out Yang’s grandmother as a more plausible cause of Yang’s fatal decision on Aug 26.

As the de-facto matriarch of the Yang family, the old lady divorced two husbands in the earlier years of her life for their incompetence. After her daughter, Gailan’s aunt, later killed herself by ingesting pesticide, the tough woman was left with her slow-minded, quiet son, and his two daughters. Gailan’s elder sister was married early to outside the village. And the burden of serving her grandmother and her father fell squarely on her tender shoulder. Villagers recollected Gailan often being scolded by her grandma, who leaved the impression of being demanding and inconsiderate. In order to keep her in the family, the grandmother “adopted” a husband for her, instead of marrying her out. From that moment on, the 20-year-old’s fate as a servant to the family has been locked in, attending to two elders and raising four kids, all on her own, until on that day, she collapsed

These are mere deductions and interpretations, to be clear. The difference is only that some are slightly more restraint and cautious than others when it comes to offering a conclusive, meaningful reading of a case at once appalling and heartbreaking. In this regard, rural China lacks its own interpreter. As one pessimistic observer puts it, in a public sphere dominated by an urban discourse, “the countryside cannot articulate itself.” No farmer’s representatives, no peasant intellectuals, no rural women’s advocates emerge to help make sense of Yang’s destruction of her entire family. The countryside remains silent while urban spectators heatedly debate morality and social welfare.

But does the countryside automatically understands itself? Asks one voice. It claims that certain extreme behaviors simply evade comprehension, no matter where it happens. What the society can do, rather than prematurely declaring that it “gets” these incidents, is to bide its time and make note of all the observable facts until it can fully grasp what has been going on. The unstoppable impulse of the Chinese Internet to (over) interpret any occurrence of significance is “hindering us from reaching a genuine understanding of our world.”

Sex, lies and Wang Baoqiang

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For a particular subset of Chinese showbiz stars, the defining feature of the celebrity experience is the dizzying rocket ride up the steep ladder of social stratification. To be sure, most Chinese people went through quite impressive upward movement in terms of wealth and relative social standing in the past three decades of rapid economic growth. But stardom has applied a mind-blowing extra acceleration to that rise, propelling a poor peasant’s son to the stratosphere of a multi-millionaire in a matter of years.

Wang Baoqiang is one of those lucky few. Raised in a poor family from a small city in Hebei province, he spent six years of his early youth in the Shaolin Temple, the mecca of Chinese kung-fu, as a resident pupil, practicing martial arts hundreds of miles away from home while other kids of his age were at primary schools. Sending kids to the temple was for cash-strapped families a makeshift solution to formal education. After that he migrated east, to the prosperous coastal part of the country, to look for opportunities. In the city of Beijing he tried to find luck in the booming show business, from the very bottom of the industry, as an extra. He landed a life changing role in the 2004 blockbuster by celebrated director Feng Xiaogang, playing, not surprisingly, a dumb, naive, trusting son of a peasant. That role’s name was shagen (or “dumb root”).

Ever since then his public image has been pretty consistent with his life story. The roles he played tend to be earthy, sincere, unsophisticated. And people affectionately associate him with that kind of personality, calling him “dumb root” or “baobao”, which is the same pronunciation as baby.

So when this beloved son of China exposed his wound in front of the whole nation, the cyberspace burst into tear. On Aug 14, Wang posted on his Weibo a statement declaring that he was to divorce his wife of seven years, Ma Rong, who, according to Wang, was having “extramarital sexual relationship” with Wang’s agent, Song Zhe. In the brief but poignant statement, Wang elaborates on how he has worked hard to fulfill his responsibilities to the family. He pleads the public to leave some privacy for his two little kids.

Amid overwhelming public sympathy for Wang, which involves massive, abusive trolling of the adulterous couple, a distinctive voice appears on the Internet. In some way it represents a “modern” response to the affair. Its core message is about the sanctity of the private sphere. Marriage, according to this view, is a voluntary bond between two individuals. No third party, let alone the collective gaze of the mass, should be allowed to project its moral judgment onto this bilateral relationship. Wang’s statement amounts to a “shame parade” of his wife. By subjecting her to the verbal abuse of hundreds of thousands of strange netizens, Wang was acting “like an uneducated villager inviting his neighbors to openly reprimand his infidel wife.”

Critics even claim that the extramarital affair should be the “privacy” of Ma Rong. Wang has no right to broadcast it to the world, even if he is her husband. The high-volume online criticism of Ma and her lover is “the pageant of the legally ignorant,” and represents a backward set of values that treats women as the property of men.

Among those who accuse Wang of harboring “agrarian-age values”, one view distinguishes itself as particularly eye-catching. The author maintains that Wang’s behavior betrays his uncultured upbringing, which makes him undeserving for his well-educated beautiful wife. He even cites sociologists to suggest that marriage is supposed to be between individuals on more equal footing, materially and intellectually.

Some of those “intellectual” response to Wang’s divorce statement and the ensuing public outcry is illustrative of why, as a group, liberal-leaning intellectuals are disliked by a large part of the Chinese Internet. In recent years, “public intellectuals”, which refers to liberal commentators who opine on a wide range of social issues not limited to their own expertise or profession, are considerably stigmatized and despised by many netizens. Not all of this contempt can be explained away by government-led smear campaigns, though they certainly play a key role. The Wang Baoqiang affair shows how at least partially it is also self-inflicted.

As veteran commentator Cao Lin puts it, the elitist aloofness embodied in such response seems to be but a cheap and deliberate posture to agitate the public and gain web traffic. The “privacy” argument is particularly far-fetched and pretentious: Wang only mentioned, in a matter-of-fact manner, his wife’s affair in his statement, as the cause of their break-up. He did not release any information about that affair beyond the simple statement, no hidden camera pictures, no sex tapes. Cao argues that the use of the over-extended concept of privacy to blame Wang Baoqiang is a blatant disregard of his misfortune as a husband and the moral obligations of married adults.

The backlash is fierce against the detached, learned online intellectuals who lecture people about private sphere and a marriage deprived of moral values. “Urban elites wields the language of modernity to defend the betrayal of trust and basic ethics. The logic behind that language is confusing, arrogant and shameless,” says one media operative on Weibo.

Interestingly, those who are able to articulate a counter argument against the liberal, intellectual stance is no less intellectual. For them, the overwhelming public sentiment is a society’s defense of basic decency in family and professional life. “Being faithful to a partner, being honest to an employer, is a morally honorable way of life, compared to which the moral cynicism of the intellectuals is despicable.” Some even venture that the society’s ability to apply public pressure to immoral behaviors is a desirable quality. It glues basic social units such as family together. According to this view, in many other societies this precious moral force is being suppressed by the “liberal intelligentsia”, a mistake that China should not repeat.

But this sudden uphold for “moral conservatism” in the Chinese society is not without its skeptics. To those ears, it sounds too much like handing the society’s moral baton to the nosy, judging and meddling “auntie Wangs” who have no sense of boundary and privacy. Feminists go one step further. They see the highly public debate of the dissolution of one marriage as reinforcement of the “tyranny of monogamy” that bounds women to a social institution with a force that does not apply equally to men.

Inadvertently, by displaying his flawed marriage to millions of viewers, “dumb root” poses a not so dumb ethical conundrum that proves challenging for a society constantly renegotiating the borderline between private autonomy and the collective purpose as a community.

Patriotic July

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Celebrity actress/director Zhao Wei, the South China Sea, Kentucky Fried Chicken. In what kind of a mental universe can those three be organized into a recognizable constellation with meaning and significance? The answer seems to be the Chinese patriotic mind. In the past month, the cyberspace witnessed how patriotic sentiments built up with a grassroots campaign against Zhao Wei, climaxed with the vehement attack on the South China Sea ruling handed out by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, and subsided with offline protests against KFC in a bunch of Chinese cities.

The key to understanding this rather bizarre pathway of mobilization-escalation-demobilization is a close look at the interconnection between the patriotic discourse and its class struggle “sister”. While the latter adds fuel to the flame of the former, its destructive potency that threatens to tear society apart induces an uneasy response from the conservative establishment originally set to benefit the most from a nationalist uproar.

At first, the campaign against Zhao Wei looked like old news. Once again, netizens attacked celebrities who carried political values deemed problematic and demanded redress from whoever hired them. Zhao Wei’s new film (which she directs) features Taiwanese actor Dai Liren, who has been active in the social movement scene of Taiwan. Though Dai himself firmly declined, political vigilantes in the mainland branded him a Taiwan independence advocate and pressured the film to either have him “declare himself a Chinese” or drop him as a lead actor. The film originally resisted, but caved in at last.

If the campaign had stayed at that level, it probably would not move beyond the premise of a self-sufficient community of Neo-Maoists, establishment leftists and youth patriots. The increasingly belligerent alliance reaffirms its relevance each time through virtually lynching celebrities on politically charged issues such as Taiwan independence or Hongkong’s democratic movement. Most of their aggressions do not surface in mainstream media but occasionally they catch a big fish. Over the course of the past 6 months, at least two stars have fallen spectacularly to such attacks, Taiwanese actress Chou Tzu-Yu (whom this blog has featured), and Hong Kong singer Ho Wan See, whose appearance at a concert sponsored by French cosmetic brand Lancome was cancelled after mainland “patriots” went after her involvement in the Occupy Central movement. Successful mobilization injects refreshed energy into the cause, which seems to rely on such vitriolic cycles to keep itself activated.

Dai Liren might have been just another poor game that the hungry beast prey on, repeating the somewhat banal cycle of denounce-denial-escalation-apology. But this time development took an unexpected turn that fundamentally altered the nature of the whole affair.

On July 6, a Communist Youth League Weibo post reviewing the Zhao Wei/Dai Liren episode was temporarily deleted for unknown reasons. The abnormality stirred up more than just suspicion. A major paranoia attack clenched a segment of the campaign, which, all of a sudden, became super concerned with freedom of expression on the Internet. They believed Zhao Wei was somehow involved in getting that post deleted, through her well known connections in the top echelon of the Chinese business circle, particularly with e-commerce tycoon, Alibaba Group president Jack Ma. The accusation is far-fetched at best. But it grabbed the imagination of the sensitively-minded. If an actress could ask her boss friends to censor the Communist Youth League, what else could they not do? “Capital manipulates public opinion” became a hashtag on Weibo, and a cyber warfare would sweep through the Internet, making one feel as if millions of Chinese had converted to Michael Moore overnight.

 

On Jul 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague released its much anticipated ruling on the dispute between China and Philippines over the former’s claims in the South China Sea. It was a landslide win for Philippines, legally speaking. But Beijing refused to accept it, calling the decision void and null. As if on a cue, state media went on an all-out push to delegitimize the arbitration and the entire process.

The tone of the coordinated condemnation was vituperative and absolutist, leaving no space for negotiation. For a contemporary Chinese ear, the underlying message was familiar and clear: it’s a politically high-voltage line that one must not cross, no questions, no argument. It was in the same line as the response to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and to the 2001 collision of US and Chinese military aircrafts near the Hainan island that killed a Chinese pilot. In both earlier cases, the government flooded the public space with its strong-worded position through the propaganda machinery and tried to unify public perception around that. This time, social media turned out to be the new territory that the state needed to occupy. People’s Daily put up on Weibo a poster declaring that “not a single (island) should be taken away“. Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin called the ruling “terrible as hell.” On WeChat, people posted the same set of slogans – the three “Nots”(not recognize, not participate, and not accept) – to flag their alignment with the state.

The high-pitched broadcasting of indignant denunciation, proud declaration and defiant sneer from the Chinese state media almost defined the tone of July. Everywhere on the Internet, people were condemning the United States, ridiculing Philippines and cursing Japan. At certain point, the collective glare turned toward the whole institution of the Law of the Sea itself. High level officials slighted the Arbitral Tribunal as a cheap, non-official body that would accept any case as long as someone paid for it. They questioned the composition of the panel, criticizing the five panelists for acting as puppets of Japan and not understanding Asia at all. They also picked on the location of the PCA, sarcastic about the fact that even if it sat at The Hague, it had nothing to do with the International Court of Justice (even though there was no sign that the PCA itself pretended to be the ICJ). At one point, the United Nations official Weibo account joined the chorus, implying that the Tribunal was just a “tenant” of the Peace Palace building, where both the PCA and the ICJ were stationed, and had nothing to do with the UN. A naughty “bye-bye” emoji was added at the end of that post.

The ideological hawks, who were busy attacking Zhao Wei at the time of the ruling, were briefly drawn into this national symphony of condemnation. But their attention quickly swayed back. After all, shouting at the United States or Philippines does not bring any visible “victories” or even response. But to keep a movement energized you always need vindication.

When observers look back at the whole Zhao Wei affair, they see what Philip Alden Kuhn described in his Soulstealers: the Chinese sorcery scare of 1768. In this bloody event that was the Qing Dynasty’s rough equivalence of the Salem witch-hunt, the country was caught in a panic attack of some weird rumors that sorcerers were stealing people’s souls by cutting off their pigtails, the long braid that Chinese people wore at that time. After Emperor Qianlong became concerned with the situation, heads started to get rolling, literally. Lower level officials needed convicts to fulfill their duty. And people turned against each other. As Kuhn puts it, the Emperor’s legitimizing of the scare was like “loaded guns left on the street”. People picked them up and started shooting at their own enemies.

The patriotism that saturated the air after the South China Sea ruling was that loaded gun. And the idea of an ideological “struggle” on the Internet, something President Xi suggested in a 2013 speech and the conservative Beijing Daily articulated in a follow-up editorial, provides politico-theoretical backing. In the much discussed editorial, the Internet is declared the “main battleground” of ideological struggle today. It is a “war without smoke” and its consequence is “either you live or they die”. The target: Western values dressed as “universal”.

The “struggle” approach redefines online debates, and for that matter, the expression of patriotism, which turns increasingly inward, in search of enemies to be crushed within the country. There should be no dialogue or conversation, only defeat, humiliation and subjugation. Life and death.

The escalation of the anti-Zhao-Wei campaign into a struggle against “capitalist control of media” means an enlarged hunting ground. Patriotic netizens cast their searchlight toward Zhao Wei’s web of connections, and big name institutions including Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group and Jet Lee’s One Foundation were dragged into the controversy. Both Ma and Lee, a legendary kung-fu-star-turned-philanthropist, were believed to be close friends of Zhao. Within days, both groups were alarmed to the extent that they issued official statements denouncing unspecified “online rumors” about their political associations. Alibaba had to explain that its donation to the Clinton Global Initiative, which netizens revealed amid the email leak of the Democratic National Committee, was purely philanthropic and not in any way political contributions to the Clintons or the United States. The One Foundation had to fend off more serious accusations that it served as a capitalist “Trojan horse” with the ulterior motive of overthrowing the regime through the gradual corrosion of the credibility of official institutions. Besides its founder Jet Lee, many of the foundation’s board members are business tycoons (i.e. capitalists) including Jack Ma and China Vanke President Wang Shi. Observers see the carefully worded response from Alibaba and One Foundation as an ominous sign of a fringe phenomenon collecting menacing power.

 

On July 17 a bunch of men and women showed up at the front door of a KFC restaurant in Laoting, Hebei province, with a banner that says “You eat KFC, our ancestors lose face”. The picketers tried to dissuade customers from dining at the restaurant, which had to close for that afternoon. This was one of the dozen small-scale KFC protests that happened in the aftermath of the South China Sea ruling, mostly in second and third-tier cities. For those familiar with Chinese patriotic “tradition”, American and Japanese restaurant chains are the usual vehicles for such expressions. Peter Hessler documented in his book Oracle Bones how students in Nanjing pelted and vandalized KFC and McDonald’s after the NATO bombing, which was probably the modern origin of this tradition.

What’s interesting this time is how swiftly state media came to disavow the protests, calling them irrational and stupid. The Weibo account of People’s Daily, which, only days earlier, was full of strong-worded denunciations of the ruling, turned around and lectured its audience why, in an era of interconnected international commerce, boycotts did not work. The 2012 tragedy where a poor Xi’an Toyota owner got his head smashed open by an anti-Japan protester seems to have permanently tarnished the image of such “acts of patriotism” from which state media are now eager to distance themselves. “Turning on each other only makes your enemy laugh,” as they would propagate. Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, posted a photo of KFC chickens on his table as a gesture of him not buying into the KFC bullshit. He added one more twist: critics should never attribute such naïveté to proper patriotism.

As critics would argue, the official attempt to sever “patriotism” from unpopular offline activities and to confine the concept in a realm of noble civility is disingenuous at best, given the government’s promotion of an overall belligerent message through state media. But the distancing did create a tricky problem for the grassroots patriots who were still busying chasing Zhao Wei and her friends. And that tension reached to a flash point when two social media outlets openly clashed.

The day when protesters blocked the entrance to the KFC in Laoting, one of the People’s Daily’s offspring social media accounts, the influential Xiakedao, posted a scathing piece about the stupidity of the whole Zhao Wei affair and implied criticism of its source, Thought Torch, a weibo account that served as a center of ideological warfare on the Internet. It declared the campaign nothing but groundless conspiracy theory that took advantage of the nationalist nerve. “It’s the same nerve that directed ‘hot-blooded’ young men to vandalize Japanese cars owned by their fellow Chinese.”

Being scolded by a politically orthodox source did not silence the grassroots but piqued them. Their response was to incorporate the behavior of Xiakedao into their narrative: yet another dominant outlet being corrupted and compromised by capital. They sneered at Xiakedao as a sell-out that published for the money, a usurper of the People’s Daily’s red credential as the Party’s mouthpiece.

The open fight briefly caught the attention of Weibo’s top management, who implied suspicion of the Thought Torch’s claimed affiliation with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. But a shrewd commentator pointed out, half sarcastically, that such suspicion was probably ill-informed: the head of today’s CASS was among the first modern day intellectuals who advocate the resurrection of class struggle in social science studies.  It’s the kind of perplexing irony that will linger even after the patriotic fire of July gradually died down following coordinated official efforts to cool things down. In the interval, the ideological volcano of China awaits its next eruption.

Flood Buffer

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For 60-year-old Li Ailian, life along that stretch of the Yangtze River is a gamble. Before this year’s monsoon hit, she decided to defy the odds and went along with her usual planting regiment of corn, soy bean and cotton in her tiny patch of land. If nothing had gone wrong, she would have earned about 20,000 RMB for the year, not too bad for a farmer like her. But a climate event that started in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean called El Nino messed with her dice this time. Her field got inundated before she could harvest her crops.

The village where Li lives is located in a “flood buffer zone” that is specifically designated to protect downstream urban centers like Wuhan. When water levels further down the Yangtze become too high, the authority would order the evacuation of entire villages in the zone before it blows up dikes to let in the flood, relieving the pressure on downstream lines of defense. The buffer has been there for as long as 4 decades. The constant threat of floods severely constrains economic developments in the region. No major developments requiring substantial capital investment would go into a place where being submerged is an annual possibility. It is one of the poorest corners of Hubei province, right in the middle of the Yangtze.

Amidst an outburst of national concern about one of the severest floods in decades, a story about vulnerable communities and their sacrifice is apt for a press that values social justice and pursues progressive improvement of governance. If it were 10 years ago, such reports would have filled the pages of those newly liberalized, progressive newspapers. But this time, the story is more of an exception than norm. By the time it emerged on Tencent’s in-depth news platform Prism, national attention on the flood had largely waned.

So what were people reading while massive downpour in early July was paralyzing towns and cities along the Yangtze? Pigs.

On Jul 4, a piece of news report about 6000 stranded pigs in an Anhui province farm suddenly became the focus of Internet sympathy. The picture of the pig farm owner crying in waist-deep water got more than viral on the Internet, it went live. The Anhui website that broke the news outdid its national competitors by bringing a full crew to the farm and live-streamed the scene through the web. It was a sensational success: at one point more than 20 million people linked in to watch how rescuers moved the pigs to a safer place. The phenomenon raised eyebrows all across the observers community. People lamented the pathetic fact that pigs got more attention than humans: at almost the same time, a People’s Daily Weibo post about 16 thousand people being dislocated by the flood received just over 700 retweets.

While conventional wisdom may place the blame on the shallow curiosity of the public, we can also advance a more daring thesis that the pigs have simply occupied a vacuum left by the absence of more dominating narratives that are supposed to guide and channel public sentiment.  

One such narrative, the authority-challenging, justice-pursuing, right-defending line of inquiry was subdued this time, but not by its usual counter-force, the nation-glorifying, unity-championing, Party-praising narrative that often trumps everything else at moments of crisis, through the state-controlled propaganda machinery. Ironically, the latter also found itself in an inhospitable environment in this episode of natural disaster. And curiously, the forces that tore it apart were not the usual suspects of liberal intellectuals.  

As soon as the flood situation in Hubei province got critical, the military was mobilized, as usual, to save the day. Pictures of the heroic PLA quickly began to spread through state media. These are usually good raw materials to erect the monument of national strength and determination. Yet pictures of soaking wet soldiers eating cold, mud-stained buns on the front line of flood fighting triggered a slightly different emotional response than its disseminators had intended: not a sense of awe and gratitude, but indignation. The online community most agitated by this picture turned out to be the most unlikely: military fans.

In terms of fan base, the online military/weaponry sub-culture is probably only outnumbered by the sports fan community, especially among young males. Their jaw-dropping erudition about all aspects of the armed forces can be read as an alarming sign of the militarization of the country’s young minds. But this time, the obsession with anything military turned around and became a source of frustration with the nation state. Opinion leaders in the online community openly questioned why in the 21st century, Chinese soldiers were still fed with cold buns in the field. One of them wrote a comprehensive analysis about how the national propaganda apparatus repeatedly brought embarrassment to the military due to a misguided urge to highlight the “suffering” of disaster relief efforts. “Our people need to see a well-equipped, highly-trained modern armed force.” 

To drive home their point, military fans even researched Russian military food service and showcased the impressive collection of ready-to-eat self-heating full meals available to Russian soldiers in battlefield. Feeling the heat, the Communist Youth League’s Weibo account tried to defend the practice, claiming that eating cold buns was the soldiers’ spontaneous response to an emergency situation, and that “buns were more delicious than pre-prepared meals full of preservatives”. The explanation was heavily ridiculed by the army’s online supporters, who saw the lame response as doing more damage than good.

If narratives run like rivers, their currents wind and swerve following the shape of the terrain. When their main arteries are clogged, the water linger and find other outlets. Pigs and military foods are the buffer zones of the flood of public opinion, as its massive torrents need a space to spread and stay after more consequential destinations are blocked from being pursued.

The debates over the Three Gorges Dam or the myth about magical century-old German sewer systems left in Tsingtao are other futile, distracting buffers that consume public attention and energy. Even though the intensive downpour happened in the lower stream areas unregulated by the dam, it does not stop people from tossing old insults at it, provoking the same old response from the dam’s defenders. And media had to spend serious time busting the groundless myth of the German sewers. 

Occasionally, the pool of trapped water cut off from its journey to the ocean carries an interesting tinge, a tinge from 1998. During the days when Wuhan was besieged by water, people circulated posts about the legendary flood that hit the same region 18 years ago, and how the leaders of that generation, President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, presided over a flood-fighting campaign that decided the life and death of tens of millions of people. Nothing in the posts was brand new information. Yet their appearance at the particular moment had subtle effects on the undercurrents that ran deep in the national psyche. 

There is this episode about Wen Jiabao’s decision not to blow up the dikes and harness the flood buffer areas upstream of Wuhan to reduce downstream risks of breach. As Vice Premier delegated with full authority to make such a decision on the spot (and urged to do so by subordinates), he had all the indicators in front of him (including a pre-designated water level by a State Council decree) pointing to opening the dike. However, his order was continued fortification of the dike at all cost, until water level finally started to drop. In the end, no breach happened downstream, and the 330 thousand people in the flood buffer zone were saved from death, losses and displacement.

In the WeChat post that described this episode in great detail, Wen was depicted as risking his political career for that consequential decision. No one would have blamed him if he opened up the dike and sacrificed the people in the buffer zone, as he had all the justification needed. Even if downstream defense still got compromised, he would have the cover of having exhausted options. But not doing it would put him in politically disastrous circumstances if flood did overcome the dikes of the lower Yangtze. For a Chinese Vice Premier, taking care of the marginal and vulnerable is an act of compassion elevated to historic altitudes. 

The complex, ambiguous undertones of such posts provide opening for multiple interpretations. By somehow linking the current situation with the 1998 campaign, which was preserved in the national memory largely as a monument of national unity and struggle untainted by the whines and ridicules nowadays, they introduce the positive elements of state strength and legitimacy into today’s discourse that is facing increasing difficulty of erecting that kind of narratives. On the other hand, highlighting the historical feat of a previous administration always invites comparison and contrast. And when public narratives about party leaders are infested by the frame of power struggle among cliques, boosting the legacy of one former leader often has the effect (intended or unintended) of jeopardizing, if not outright undermining, the stature of their successors.

Like the yearly monsoon of the mighty Yangtze, the din of argument, bicker and question about the flood will ultimately pass. Life in the flood buffer zones, literal and metaphorical, will have to continue. The Li Ailians will need to cope with a new landscape changed, once again, by something that is at once the source of life and its destruction. While spectators like us will need to tell if the winding waterways of a national story about flood is changed permanently or only temporarily by the clogs and breaches that redirects its currents.

Canaries in the coal mine

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China is in a police state of mind lately. The number of police-related controversies since early May makes some observers openly wonder if it is pure coincidence or intentional agenda-setting.

One commonality in all these cases is the assertiveness of the country’s security forces both offline and online. The eventful month started with the Beijing police’s forceful handling of Lei Yang, a twenty-nine-year-old young professional who died while under custody on May 7, and culminated with a Shenzhen police officer’s disgraceful attempt to detain two young women who refused to show their ID upon random stop on the street. After information about the incidents was brought onto the Internet, the cyberspace was rattled, not just by the expected public outcry, but also by the unusually loud roar of the police force itself.

On the night of May 7, plainclothes policemen intercepted Lei Yang on the street near Lei’s home. According to family members and friends, Lei was on his way to the airport picking up relatives. He never made it to the airport though. The police’s story was drastically different: he was caught leaving from a prostitution house disguised as a foot massage place. Based on that theory, he made a detour on his way to the metro station, and used that extra time (a few minutes to be exact) to enjoy paid sexual service. Upon interception by the officers who were to bust the shop that night, Lei panicked and tried to escape. The cops forced him into a police car. In a struggle, he had what seemed to be a heart attack and died after being rushed to the hospital.

That version was heavily challenged by Lei’s family, who insisted they saw disturbing wounds on his dead body. Was he beaten to death? Accounts by street witnesses also suggest that there was quite a scene around the street corner that night.

From the beginning, questions about police misconduct shadowed the discussion. But they were met with a stern response from both within the security force and the society. Such voices are unapologetic: if Lei actually fought his arrest, then the police were fully justified in their use of violence. Amidst a tide of public criticism, the Changping district police, the authority responsible for the May 7 mission, released information about Lei’s attempt to violently escape. But it failed to put the controversy to a rest as no visual record existed to corroborate that claim, a key sore point in the debate as, inexplicably, all the video recording devices, including street surveillance cameras and the police’s handheld device were either not functioning or damaged in the struggle . The police also had a hard time selling their key assertion that Lei was a suspected John, a premise on which the forceful intervention was based. Again, no direct visual evidence, except for contradictory testimony from inside the foot massage shop, exist of Lei’s entering.

But state media quickly joined force with the police to quench public questioning. On May 11, BTV, Beijing’s local TV station, broadcasted a news clip wherein the woman who supposedly served Lei Yang went on camera to say that she gave him a “hand job.” On that same day, CCTV followed with a more extensive piece that almost exclusively disseminated the police side of the story. The officers directly involved in the questionable arrest were given generous slots in the prime time news program to make their case, which included the revelation of DNA evidence collected from a condom found at the scene.

Emboldened by what seemed to be strong evidence of Lei’s wrongdoing, commentators sympathetic to law enforcement did not feel they need to pull punches. In an article titled “Lei Yang, sorry but I am a policeman“, the author, who is likely affiliated with the security force, argues that law enforcement has “indisputable” right to stop and question those suspected for illegal conduct, and that suspicion can be entirely discretionary or even arbitrary. Upon resistance, police officers are fully entitled to use force to put suspects under control. “The society should correct a very wrong notion,” says the article, “the idea that police cannot beat you is a misconception. The law has given officers authorization to use force.”

The sentiment was echoed by Internet personalities who held the view that Lei was basically “asking for it“. What should have the police done? They asked rhetorically, begging for his cooperation? Even more restraint observers contended that Lei (and his family) had a weak case vis a vis the police, as it’s “nearly impossible” to hold the cops accountable for excessive violence if some manhandling was justified in the first place.

The incident set the country’s law-and-order hawks on an offensive mode throughout the month.  Later, when smartphone videos turned up on the Internet showing police officers handcuffing middle-aged women on the streets of Shanghai for minor traffic rule violations, and a Shenzhen officer verbally abusing and threatening two girls that he would lock them up with “rapists and people with AIDS”, hardliners turned the blame around and accused the subjects of law enforcement of disrespectful behavior. They maintained that those “scenes” were necessary lesson for the country’s populace to learn the proper way in front of its police. Much of that stance is a response to what they see as a knee-jerk liberal reaction which invariably criticizes the officers in such situations. By demonizing law enforcement, liberal “public intellectuals” have made the public unrulier in their encounter with it, the allegation goes.

What’s remarkable is the number of police-affiliated social media accounts that became particularly vocal. “What’s wrong with checking your ID? Who do you think you are?” One Weibo account owned by a local police officer fired up, “Who said women can be exempted from checks?” Other accounts also expressed impatience with public protest. An account associated with a county-level police department, noting the number of online video clips that put security forces under the spotlight, went even further by educating the public that simply video recording policemen in action is illegal, which drew immediate criticism from those who insist that to witness and monitor official proceedings is a citizen’s constitutional right.

Response to that newfound assertiveness is marked by a pessimistic reading of the bleak legal landscape the public faces. Lawyers lay bare the dire consequence if one does not comply with orders from officers, even when they are clearly violating protocol. Precedents after precedents indicate that Chinese courts do not side with ordinary people daring to talk back at officers who do not, for example, feel the need to flash their badge (a key point of contention in the above mentioned Shenzhen video). The Chinese state sends the signal that it values the authority of law enforcement more than procedural rights of the public which it considers a secondary concern. That same logic has prompted People’s Daily to publish an opinion piece following the Shenzhen video that advises citizens to “abide first, and complain later”. Entertaining “the right to refuse,” the logic goes, would be too costly a compromise for ground level enforcement.

But the defensive, unapologetic tone of the law-and-order camp provides an assembling ground for its resistance. The CCTV news program was intensively questioned for its one-sidedness and its inappropriateness: suspects of a potential criminal case were literally given the floor to influence public opinion. In a widely read post later thoroughly censored, a group of volunteers who took the time to examine the site in person, carefully recreated the scene and picked open the police’s claims one by one. How could the “prostitute” mistake Lei’s white clothing for black? Why would a “hand job” require a condom? How come Lei, who was in a hurry to get to the airport, ended his 200 RMB “service” prematurely yet spent a full 2 minutes walking only 67 meters, as recorded by two surveillance cameras? Why didn’t the police, eager to establish Lei as a suspect, never specified when exactly Lei entered or exited from the shop? They ventured the bold yet convincing hypothesis that the policemen never saw by their own eyes Lei’s presence at the foot massage place but only rushed to the scene after receiving reports. They probably intercepted the wrong guy, who was likely, and fatefully, just waiting for a taxi.

The provocative stance of police-affiliated social media accounts attract a particularly determined pushback from multiple corners of the cyberspace. Veteran observers point at the blatancy of their disregard for legal validity and lament about the pervert popularity they enjoy “among some high-level officials”. Apparently certain elements within the establishment see these accounts as novel and effective means to neutralize liberal attacks against the country’s security forces in social media. Ideological hawks have long advanced the conspiracy theory that public backlash against police malpractice is a systematic assault on the legitimacy of the Party, orchestrated by hostile external forces.

But the alienating effect of the arrogant, gun-wielding image of such “police trolls” online is starting to become clear. Even long time regime defenders became frustrated with their posturing, accusing them of being nothing more than bullies that intimidate ordinary netizens and push them to the opposite side. Certain official outlets joined the chorus, cautioning such accounts not to overreach and create unintended effect in the sphere of public opinion. As long time media watcher Song Zhibiao notes, this wave of police-related debates seems to have created a particular dilemma for some online “patriots”, who are torn between their affection for the country and their anxiety for everyday security, a feeling intensified by cases above.

The authority has to navigate carefully in waters like this, lest they get caught in treacherous swirls. The People’s Daily was openly trolled by hardliners after its Twitter account implied criticism of the Shenzhen policeman. After the Changping police and CCTV went under heavy fire, official response to the Lei Yang case has become more reserved: prosecutors have been meticulously updating the public about steps that haven been taken, while distancing itself from substantive statements. There are signs that public complaint is taken seriously: policemen involved in Lei’s arrest were put under surveillance on Jun 1. Two of them, including the one who had appeared on CCTV, were formally arrested one month later. Possible charges include causing Lei’s death and interfering with investigation. In the Shenzhen video case, the officer’s unit immediately apologized for his behavior and suspended his job.

In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s groundbreaking dissent against the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Utah v. Strieff, which coincidentally happened right in the middle of the Chinese debate over police misconduct, she compares victims of unwarranted police search as “canaries in the coal mine” that warn society about the corrosion of civil liberty that “threaten all our lives”.

In China, the warning sent out by the canaries have to pass through a much noisier tunnel before it reaches the ears of people in the “coal mine”. In the process, the simple clarity of civil liberty is complicated by anxieties about law and order, entrenched mistrust of authority and an urge to publicly prove the other side wrong, either through righteous, dogged questioning or through nasty intimidation. The whole affair has made some question the overall impact of public opinion on the judicial system. As one prosecutor writes after the arrest of the two officers in the Lei Yang case, “We have seen cases where the judiciary is hijacked by public opinion. We have also seen cases where the judiciary single-mindedly disregard public oversight. Both are a deviation from true justice.” The goddess of justice has hell of a partner to tango with in China.

Road Rage

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Chinese netizens can be mean, very mean. On May 30, a photo of Prof. Mao Baohua from Beijing Jiaotong University, circulated widely on WeChat. What’s remarkable about the photo is that it was placed in a black frame, the kind often used at funerals. The poor professor was singled out by netizens because he had suggested that Beijing should levy a congestion fee in the fashion of London and Singapore to ease its chronic traffic jams. The new measure was being seriously contemplated by city officials and its passage seemed imminent.

In this high-pitched show of public discontent, one gets a glimpse of the kind of frustration that forms the foundation of many public backlashes against seemingly “progressive” policy initiatives, be it a congestion charge or an oil price floor. Various sources of dissatisfaction gather under the banner of “fairness”, an increasingly prominent theme that features those debates. After years of dizzying growth that substantially expands the “cake” for everyone, it seems that the country has entered a stage where reforms often have to deal with re-allocating that precious cake.

In many such cases, policy makers get their way despite vehement complaints from citizens, giving the impression of a get-the-job-done type government that does not cave in to public bellyaching, a kind of “efficiency” that politicians in a liberal democracy would envy. But as examples will show, the role of a cake-cutter is increasingly challenging for the government to assume, at a time when competing ideas of fairness, each with its own political potency, clash openly in the public sphere.

Beijing is a city notorious for its traffic jams. Over the years, the city’s administrators seem to have exhausted all conceivable ways to loosen the daily clench of its congested roads. They have introduced a lottery system for new plates, limiting monthly addition to the capital’s vehicle fleet to a grudging 20,000. On top of that, they have also imposed a complicated road rationing program based on the last digit of each plate. On any given workday, cars with certain last-digit numbers are prohibited from hitting the road. In special occasions such as the Olympics or the military parade, a more drastic even-odd plate system would kick in, forcing half of the city’s cars off road. But traffic conditions in Beijing continue to deteriorate. According to a recent report ranking China’s most congested cities, Beijing unsurprisingly occupies the top spot.

This is the background of the recent congestion charge proposal that is being floated around by city officials and advisors. Prof. Mao went one step further by putting a concrete figure on the fee: at least 20 RMB daily, earning himself an awkward place under the media spotlight.

The prospect of a congestion charge essentially tears apart the equality imposed by a non-discriminating lottery and rationing system, which opens a can of worms.

The sentiment that surfaces in a big way is “Beijing nativism”, a kind of unabashed prejudice against people from outside Beijing. Locals angrily blame outsiders for sucking up the city’s scarce road resources, and demand prohibitive actions against drivers and cars not from Beijing. China’s social welfare system is still largely hinged upon one’s Hukou (residence registration), a brownish little booklet that determines if you legally belong to a city or not. Public resources, such as education and healthcare, are allocated based on Hukou, erecting a wall between the haves (native residents) and the have-nots (non-natives). Consequently, access to those resources is fiercely guarded by the locals, to the extent that open conflict once broke out between natives and migrants over public school enrollment. An “equal educational right” movement was born out of that clash. And a number of nasty references to non-natives, such as “non-native cunts” and “migrant hecklers”, entered the Chinese vocabulary.

You would think this native-first sense of entitlement is quite backward. Yet policy making is surprisingly accommodating of such sentiments. Beijing’s traffic control measures, underneath the surface of mechanical fairness, have native-first elements deeply embedded in them. Non-natives face a higher threshold to be qualified for car purchase in Beijing. And vehicles registered outside Beijing need to get a permit before entering the city, which needs to be renewed every week.

The congestion charge could completely change the way how road use is to be allocated in Beijing. Instead of arbitrarily ordering part of the fleet off the road, it lets price signals do the job. Those who are willing and able to pay get access. Others have to opt for transportation means other than driving.

A few commentators, such as CCTV news journalist Wang Zhi’an, are visibly buoyant about the fee. They see it as a correction to the longtime unfair arrangement that gives car owners disproportionate access to Beijing’s roads, while squeezing the space for other transportation means such as buses and bikes. Now it’s time for drivers to pay their due. Wang even suggests an almost punitive 50RMB one-way charge, “high enough to turn most of the working-class car owners to subways and buses”. He openly taunts people who complain about the proposed fee, accusing them of harboring “fantasies” about a Beijing where everybody can own cars while not bothered by traffic jams.

This vision of “road justice” is immediately challenged by those who cannot stand the prospect of “roads for the wealthy and the privileged.” In reality, many low-income residents still live within Beijing’s downtown areas, making the fee especially unjust for particular social groups. Even the usually unapologetic Global Times is worried about the class implications of the fee: “Congestion charge would block Beijing’s working class from driving into city center. Policy making should definitely avoid exacerbating social stratification.”

The proposed policy is also dogged by the question of how responsibly the government would dispense with all the money that is to be collected: is it actually going to invest further into public transportation and make road use more equitable among car owners and bus takers? The line of questioning gives birth to more imaginative proposals such as directly distributing the collected money to Beijing’s millions of metro and bus takers, despite the apparent lack of feasibility.

Scholars such as Peking University law professor Deng Feng are critical of the law for a different reason. He believes that congestion charge is an inefficient measure not able to differentiate those causing congestion from the ones suffering more from it, another fairness issue that policy makers have to grapple with. More fundamentally, the legal argument goes that commuting between work and home on public roads is a right derived from the worker’s constitutional right to earn a living. The government has the responsibility to keep at least one transit passage free of charge.

Most people are pissed by the congestion charge not for its intrinsic merit, but its arrogant undertone. As mentioned above, Beijing has been experimenting with all sorts of traffic control measures to no avail. Every introduction of a new measure is interpreted as an indirect acknowledgment of the ineffectiveness of previous policies, which makes the unilateral announcement of new controls almost like a finger in the public’s face. This is the context within which many Chinese policies are judged by their subjects. Debates do not happen in a vacuum, but in a space muddled by a depressing legacy. Frustration piles up as more and more measures are thrown in to solve essentially the same problem. People half-jokingly demand previously paid taxes and fees back to be reimbursed. As Peking University’s Prof. Deng puts it: “the government has never examined ineffective measures that are still in place, nor has it explained for the rationale for the new fee.”

When the source of policy-making is considered incompetent and inherently unjust, nobody, no matter the size of the piece he gets, sees himself getting the fair share of the cake. Even if Beijing city’s leaders may find a way to shove the congestion fee down the throat of its citizens, administrators in other parts of China are already “feeling the burn” of public anger: right before China’s annual college entrance exam in June, thousands of parents in Hubei province protested in front of the provincial education authority against rumored reallocation of college entrance quotas. The cake eaters are getting rebellious.

Crime and Punishment of a Search Engine

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Does a search engine have the ability to kill a person? After being bombarded by the news about the death of a 21-year-old college student called Wei Zexi, many Chinese have come to the conclusion that it does.

Like numerous online debates about scandals of late, the incident devolves into an exercise of guilt rationing on a massive scale. With the absence of an impartial arbitrator, public opinion takes up the role of fact-finding and responsibility allocation, with implications hard to pin down at this very moment. The story puts Baidu, China’s largest search engine company, at the epicenter of the controversy, bearing the brunt of online criticism, which is guided as much by a complex set of moral convictions as by a vision of technology’s role in the society.

According to Wei’s own account posted on zhihu.com two months before his death (as an answer to the question “what is the greatest evil in human nature?”) , he was diagnosed of a rare tumor, synovial sarcoma. Major hospitals he visited all threw up their hands and told him no effective therapy was available. Desperate, he resorted to Baidu, and initial searches quickly rendered amazing results: a bio-research center based in one of Beijing’s well-regarded hospitals (affiliated with the People’s Armed Police) claimed that they had an advanced therapy (DC-CIK) that could help. The doctor there told him it was “Stanford technology” and promised to extend Wei’s life by “another 20 years at least”. The family invested almost its entire fortune into this last ditch effort, only to find that cancer quickly spread to his lung. Later, well-intentioned individuals on the internet helped Wei find out that DC-CIK was a shelved technology in most parts of the developed world due to limited effect in clinical application. Yet precious time and money was wasted. Wei, the only son of a Xi’an family, died on Apr 12th.

The personal tragedy of Wei Zexi puts a key business component of Baidu under a scorching national spotlight. It is called P4P (pay for performance), whereby customers bid for premium advertisement placement alongside “natural” search results of selected keywords. Although other factors such as quality of content also affect positioning of promoted links, bidding price carries significant weight in the formula, giving high-paying customers good chance of occupying prime locations on Baidu’s search page. The search engine does put a “promotion” mark under sponsored search results, but in a way that is probably not as visually distinguishable as critics and regulators want. The subtlety of the mark can get lost on eyes less experienced with Internet surfing, or those who are eager to find something.

With this background, it may be understandable that the first wave of criticism came for Baidu, even though in both Wei’s original account and the initial investigative piece that directed public attention to the case, the blame fell squarely on the Internet company and on the bio-research center, as well as the invisible yet mightily present state that loomed over the two.

In an era when books like Nudge populate bookstore shelves and people believe in step-counting mobile phone apps to keep themselves fit, the idea that search engine results determine the fate of individual users is only the natural offspring of a faith in the efficacy of technological interventions. It is further enhanced by the towering image of the do-no-evil Google, whose upholding of “enlightened” technology becomes a shining exemplar that shapes the Chinese public’s view of Baidu.

So the conversation swings back and forth between Baidu and Google. Some goes so far as to suggest that Baidu is the “fundamental culprit in dragging down the informational infrastructure of the Chinese society”, by abusing its virtual monopoly in the search market to set up roadblocks on the information highway, profiting from a slowed traffic and a misguided crowd. Google’s Adsense, its core advertising instrument, is upheld as being non-intrusive and responsible. Tales of Google’s efforts to ensure the quality of medical-related search results attracts the attention (and imagination) of Chinese netizens. Very specific ideas proposed by prominent opinion leaders, such as listing ads in a separate column on the screen, are clearly influenced by widely held perceptions of Google’s practices. But it is worth stressing that nowadays Google also puts some ads in the same column as natural search results (with clear marking as “Ads”). More sophisticated industry observers have also pointed out that the growth of Google’s business in China, back when it was still allowed to operate inside the country, was also partially driven by traffic generated by the same kind of search result tricks that Baidu deploys.

Pressed for a response, the Internet firm released a statement through one of its Weibo accounts on Apr 28: it had double-checked the paperwork submitted by the hospital and found it completely legit. This may be true, if your scrutiny stays at hospital level. Move one level below, to the department level, disturbing signs start to emerge. When investigative journalists dug deeper into the bio-research center, they came up with a shadowy web of private entities that had basically “taken over” lucrative departments in military-affiliated Chinese hospitals and ran them like joint-ventures. The public would learn of a so-called “Putian clan”, a group of businessmen who shared the same origin in Putian, a town in southern China’s Fujian province. Lurid, unverifiable stories about the ascent of this group of medical entrepreneurs spread widely on the Internet. As the story goes, they got hold of their first bucket of money in the early days of China’s economic reform. In those years, guerilla clinics prospered in street-side budget hotels, ripping off patients of venereal and skin diseases who were too ashamed to go to proper hospitals. With initial capital in hand, those “bare-foot doctors” began to eye more systematic, legitimate ways of money making. Cash-hungry public hospitals became their natural partners and a new model of “contracted departments” spread like wild fire. In order to bring in more patients, the Putian businessmen took up online marketing, taking advantage of the stellar reputation of hospitals that were hosting them. Baidu’s emergence as a dominant search engine and its offering of P4P handed them a perfect platform to reach out to an anxious, sometimes desperate, clientele. In the process, many patients like Wei Zexi fell victim to sub-par treatments.

The entering of the Putian businessmen into the scene makes the ethical water of the Wei Zexi case much muddier. How much blame should a search engine share if much larger malign interests are motivated to take advantage of its playbook and win access to premium ad slots? As Baidu has always claimed, it only collects and sorts information, not generating it. It acts like a mirror: the reflection is only as good as the Chinese society can be.

An event in 2015 seems to indicate that relationship between Baidu and the Putian clan is less than amiable. At that time, an industry group representing Putian medical interests called for a boycott of Baidu P4P services, claiming that the latter had used its dominance in the market to rip off Putian-controlled hospitals by unilaterally raising prices for promotion. Baidu search results have become a major channel through which such hospitals bring in patients. According to the industry association, P4P expenditures occupy an increasing chunk of those hospitals’ profits, in some cases as high as 60-80%. One the other side of the equation, medical advertisement makes up to 25% of the search engine’s ad revenue, making the relationship of the two parties a love-hate symbiosis. Baidu’s account for the unpleasant stand-off was completely different. It claimed that the industry group was threatening boycott because its crackdown on deceptive medical advertisement was hurting Putian interests. “The threat will not soften our resolute to keep false medical information out of our search results.”

With more information surfacing about the Putian clan, a push back against Baidu-bashing quickly collects momentum. People begin to question the society’s proclivity to blame the safer, easier and more exposed. For them, the focused attack on a publicly listed Internet company is a sign of the collective laziness of Chinese Internet. “The Putian businessmen are happily off the hook now,” as some would proclaim. The despicable deal between public hospitals and the nouveau riche, and negligence of their supervisors, can easily escape public scrutiny under the cover of an outcry directed entirely at Baidu. As a veteran Caijing journalist puts it, what the public should really chase is the regulators who turned a blind eye to the rampant, irresponsible monetization of public hospital reputations. Not only is Baidu a minor consideration in this whole scheme that condemns Chinese patients, so is the Putian clan, whose fortune is determined by the whims of powerful regulators. He predicts that a campaign-style crackdown on private interests in the medical sector would ensue to placate the public, without touching the fundamentals that have allowed the situation to spread in the first place. “It is a way for power to routinely discipline private interest groups, preventing them from growing too big, while reminding them to be more active in paying their rent.”

More methodical minds try to lead people out of this ethical swamp by actually ranking the relative moral responsibility of the parties involved: the biggest share of blame goes to the military-affiliated hospital that knowingly sold its reputation and standing for profit, while being in the best position to judge the medical merit of the technology that its “contracted” bio-research center is promoting. Second comes the center and regulators. Baidu ranks at the bottom of this ethical ladder, for “it is also in relative disadvantage when it comes to medical expertise”. Its only problem is choosing to pursue profits in this category in spite of its own blind spot.

But there are people who resist this way of assigning responsibility. They see it as a distraction or even an intentional tactic to deflect pressure from Baidu, at a point when intensive public questioning is just about to make a dent on one of China’s largest internet firms. The sentiment roots in a deep frustration over a string of Baidu-related controversies (including the one in January this year where it attempted to sell off management authority of an online patient support group to commercial interests), which the Internet giant have all weathered with impunity. “We don’t have the ability to change the root cause of the problem, but at least we can change Baidu with a concentrated effort.” This line of argument contains, at once, a deep sense of powerlessness and a great faith in public opinion: criticizing the power behind the whole corrupt situation won’t bring you much change. It’s a dissipation of precious energy. But the search engine will ultimately bow to such public pressure.

The powerlessness manifests itself in a different reading of Wei’s death. What killed him seems to be a carefully weaved web of sub-lethal elements: acting individually, no element, whether it’s the search engine or the hospital, is potent enough to bring death to a person. Yet collectively, their grip turns out inescapable for an ordinary Chinese like Wei. In the end, each individual element can deny accountability for the collective consequence.

On May 10, China’s Internet authority handed down its verdict on Baidu: it has to change its algorithm for search result presentation, give more weight to credibility, less to bidding prices. Plus, no more than 30% of a page should be given to promotional results. It is a rare occasion where the country’s web regulator publicly dictates change, albeit a noble one this time, to an Internet company’s core business, its algorithm. Earlier, commentators already made a careful-what-you-wish type warning about a more empowered Internet police coming out of this case. But for most part of the cyberspace, vindication is the predominant mood.

The complexity of Baidu’s response to the whole saga is best captured by an article published on the company’s intranet days before the final result. While pledging to collaborate with regulators, it also questioned why the bio-research center could obtain all the certificates and official documents. “As a great enterprise, we sometimes have to shoulder responsibilities that once belong to the state and the medical industry, because with more power comes more responsibility.”