Anatomy of an (alleged) online scam

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Your little daughter got diagnosed of leukemia. The medical bill is substantial. You are anxious. You pray to God. You start to write your feelings down in your private blog on WeChat. Friends read your posts and are touched. At the bottom of your posts WeChat has activated a “appreciation” button allowing users to give the author money as a token of support. Some of them begin to press the button enthusiastically. Before long your posts attract an expanding readership, until one day one of your posts gets viral.

The rest is legend.

Luo Er, the father who blogged about his kid under intensive care, Luo Yixiao, received more than 2.7 million RMB in donation (about 400,000 USD) in less than 72 hours. The tens of millions of total strangers visiting his blog almost caused a virtual stampede at the “appreciation” button. WeChat sets a daily ceiling of 50,000 RMB for the amount of “appreciation” a single blog post can receive, which, in the case of Luo Er, was hit in a matter of minutes. Desperate good-wishers then moved on to his other posts and showered him with money until ceilings were hit one after another. The outburst of empathy refutes any preconception about the Chinese society being apathetic.

The button is called “appreciation”, instead of “donation,” for a reason. The intention is to incentivize good original content generated by users, not to channel large chunks of cash to a cause or someone who needs help. That’s philanthropy’s role. The blurring of that line in this particular case underscores social media’s disruption of established practices and norms in both blogging and charity.  

The case is also a vivid illustration of the volatility of the Chinese cyberspace and some of its driving forces. Within that same 72 hours, an emotional whirlwind would sweep across the Internet.  Luo Er’s public image would undergo a 180 degree downward turn, a free fall from the high moral pedestal of a loving father to the cold hard floor of an internet villain that everybody spits on.

The piece at the epicenter, which Luo posted on Nov 25, is titled “Luo Yixiao, you stop there!” It describes the unsettling days that Luo spent after his little girl was moved into ICU, going in and out of the hospital, soothing his wife, and handling medical bills that were rapidly building up. At the end of it, Luo, a small-time magazine editor, plays a literary trick by bringing in his daughter in the second person. In a supposedly loving tone, Luo writes, “If you do not stop there, I will chase you down in heaven and scold you there for being naughty.” The trick works, apparently, which explains the initial success of the post among his WeChat friends.

What transformed that post from a semi-private expression of emotions to an instantaneous nationwide hit was a little marketing support it got. Luo’s friend Liu Xiafeng, a former staff of his and the boss of a social media marketing firm, wanted to offer some help. But, according to Luo’s own account, he had too much pride to accept money from Liu directly. So Liu proposed a way that would take care of his dignity: Liu’s corporate WeChat account would republish the blog post and ask people to retweet it in their own WeChat circles. For each one retweet, the company would donate one RMB to Luo Yixiao. A 500 thousand ceiling would be applied. Luo happily obliged.

On Nov 27, the piece began to spread like wildfire on people’s WeChat walls. Later, Liu revealed that 96 million people might have viewed it. The you-retweet-I-donate set-up certainly lowered the threshold for participation. The phenomenon prompted commentators to caution peopleabout their urge to “act like a good person” in front of their WeChat friends, a psychological tendency that had propelled so many such schemes before. 

There is no clearly verified account as to whether the whole thing is as noble and innocent as both Luo and Liu admit. After all, Liu’s company offers online marketing as a service and would benefit from the exposure that the retweets bring. An investigation by sohu.com would link the company to the marketing of commercial insurance plans for children, further casting questions about Liu’s motivation. There are also signs that indicate possibility of intentional manipulation: in the republished post, Liu added a full section at the beginning highlighting Luo’s precarious financial situation. His father was seriously ill back in his home town. His magazine was undergoing restructure, reducing his salary to a bare minimum. The medical bill of his daughter accumulated at a rate of 10 to 30 thousands a day, much of that uncovered by insurance. 

More experienced observers of social media would immediately spot discrepancies in the posts. Why was there no mention of the family’s exact funding gap? Usual calls for help, in order to gain trust, would often demonstrate that. Why didn’t they disclose any details about the girl’s condition, besides the general term leukemia? What’s even more perplexing was Luo’s claim that he didn’t want to “burden the government” with her daughter’s medical expenses. Instead, facing what looked like a critical situation, he chose to play along with a “game” of retweeting. 

Most people were neither experienced nor close readers of a WeChat post. The vagueness in the posts might have actually helped with their spread. Readers identified with an imagined vulnerable middle-aged father, barely hanging there with his severely diminished stream of income. His plight felt real for many who also face the insecure sandwich-like situation, squeezed from above (ailing parents) and beneath (sick kids). But as some would point out, the public might also had been captured by an outdated image of leukemia as a deadly decease perpetuated by pop culture. “Modern medicine has advanced to a point that major types of leukemia now have a 5-year survival rate of 60-85%.” What’s also likely is that people underestimate public health insurance in a city like Shenzhen, where the family live. Soon there would be revelations that much of little Yixiao’s medical bill, probably as much as 80%, could be covered by the government.

Trackers of the Chinese cyberspace began to locate the case in the not-too-long history of Internet scams in China. The earliest one on record happened in 1995, when the World Wide Web was just before the dawn of its exponential growth in the country. At China’s largest online forum at that time, where most of its frequents were researchers and graduate students, someone raised money for a non-existent “abandoned kid”. Instead of being offended, those well-intentioned internet users laughed it off as China’s earliest online prank. Things got much more malicious later with deeper penetration of internet into social life. In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed more than 80,000 people, fraudulent SMSs flooded people’s mobile phones soliciting donation for fake quake victims.  

The advance of social media further transforms such scams. New story-telling potentials unleashed by a slew of technology advancements enable those with a narrative talent to increase the power of their tales by orders of magnitude. And once viral, those stories develop a life of their own and become very hard to stop. 

Marketers quickly learn to cash in on the new trend. Driven by the need to please advertisers or venture capitalists, they prey on people’s goodwill by devising marketing campaigns and sophisticated click-baits under the disguise of social causes. 

One of the most inexplicable recent cases of such click traps is a 2015 message on WeChat that called for the indiscriminate execution of child traffickers upon arrest. Chinese parents are terrified by stories of child snatchers, and their intense love for their kids easily turns into a blind hatred of whoever poses a threat to their beloved. The petition-like post collected so much steam online that the Supreme Court of China felt the need to respond by saying that execution doesn’t solve the problem. Later it turned out that a dating website was behind the whole thing to boost its click numbers. 

On the spectrum of authenticity, Luo’s probably sits right in the middle of out-right fraud and impeccable honesty. The kid’s illness is real, but Luo was not upfront with his financial situation for reasons only he knew. Did he intentionally mislead his readers so that he might reap extra sympathy (and money) from them? Or, as a distressed father, was he simply careless to have not included precise financial details? Those nuances are important to understand the nature of the case but before they could be explored, a massive backlash would drown out everything. 

The opaqueness of Luo’s finances, while helping him to gain initial public support, quickly became a liability. As donation skyrocketed, information about Luo’s material wealth started to circulate on the Internet. People dug out old posts in his blog showing that he might own up to three apartments in the prosperous cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan, both bordering Hong Kong.

The revelation of his real estate ownership proved devastating. Ironically, the person who benefited from online perceptions and imaginations would then immediately step into a mental minefield. In a country that is hyper-sensitive about housing prices and treats real estate ownership as the ultimate symbol of social status, the idea that someone with three apartments still tried to raise money from strangers irritates people. Almost overnight, the Internet that initially embraced the family with sympathy and love turned against it with harshness and hostility. News headlines fixated on the three apartments and journalists grilled the duo with questions about Luo’s material wellbeing.

Major online personalities quickly banked on such a turn of event to fan the flame of public anger. Their line of questioning followed the obsession with real estate: why didn’t he sell off one of his apartments to save his daughter? When Luo publicly defended himself by explaining the constraints he faced and the difficulties in liquidating his assets in short notice, he was accused of an even more hideous sin: that deep down, he did not consider the girl worthy of major financial sacrifices. The extrapolation played into an entrenched resentment of a backward Chinese mentality that favors boys over girls. Opinion leaders were enraged about Luo’s perceived slight of his daughter, despite all the loving words he’d filled his blog with.

The public’s violent mood swing over this affair troubled those who care about the future of online philanthropy. They fear that people would lose faith in subsequent calls for help from individuals, harming those who are genuinely in need. In 2011, a woman named Guo Meimei, who self-claimed as a Red Cross Society affiliate and boasted about her luxurious life style on Weibo, ruined the Red Cross Society’s reputation which, until today, never fully recovered. With such considerations in mind, Deng Fei, star journalist and the founder of multiple online philanthropic initiatives including the wildly successful “Free Lunch” project for poor rural kids, set out to “set the record straight” in an attempt to restore trust in the overall online environment for charity. He intended to bring the facts and nuances back into the discussion, feeling that the public was driven too much by conjecture and imagination. He and a few friends investigated the case, interviewed Luo Er and came to the conclusion that he was simply a disturbed guy misguided by the potential of WeChat fundraising. All weaknesses, no malice.

Despite his stellar reputation, Deng’s findings were not convincing for others who were also looking at the facts closely. Wang Zhi’an, an investigative journalist for CCTV, did the math and found that Luo had probably earned enough “appreciation” money for Yixiao’s medication even before Liu’s company launched its fundraising campaign, and that he should have learned about Yixiao’s insurance coverage situation in September. Smoking gun of a pre-contemplated scheme.

Those fact-based discussions could have greatly calibrated Luo’s presentation of his situation, giving readers considering donation a much more completely picture of his motivation and financial situation. Yet they came 72 hours too late. The absence of such fact-checking in the early stage of the saga is, to some, the symptom of a gate-keeping-free era of social media.

Public rage finally accumulated to a point that both the government and Tencent, mother company running WeChat, felt the need to intervene. Originally, Luo and Liu proposed to set up a foundation for children who have leukemia with the excess money they had raised. But the public did not trust them with money anymore. So Tencent came up with a technical fix that allowed WeChat to return all the 2.7 million to every single users who pressed the “appreciation” button.

The fix was not without its critics. Even to this point, there are people who, half-sarcastically, insist that Luo Er was simply rewarded for his touching writing. According to this view, the public was essentially paying for an “emotional massage”, not making donations. Forcing the total return of such money of “appreciation” violated the sanctity of a private expression of support.

Mavericks aside, the episode raises the fundamental question of ethics in an age of social media: how should people treat such calls in the future? Are wealthy people ever justified to raise money publicly for emergency? The answer is yes, writes commentator Yao Yao, as long as they are transparent about their situation. The case highlights the need for vetting mechanisms and professional organizers of philanthropic resources. The worthiness of someone for charitable support should be based on actual needs, not one’s ability to tell heart-wrenching stories.

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.

Ground Zero

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Everything feels like a déjà vu of the 2011 high-speed train wreck.

On Aug 16, four days after the devastating blast in the coastal city of Tianjin, local officials once again turned their daily press conference into a national spectacle, not for its brilliance, but for its jaw-dropping level of confusion. In front of live broadcasting cameras from all over the world, the city’s chief propaganda official could not answer the basic question of “who’s in charge of the emergence response?” In previous occasions, they had also dodged questions in utterly clumsy ways, such as abruptly walking out while journalists watched in disbelief.

The scene is reminiscent of the press conferences after two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou four years ago. In the aftermath of the accident that killed 40 passengers, the nation was incensed by the arrogant and smart-ass comments from the spokesperson of the Railway Ministry. His notorious comment that “no matter whether you believe it, I believe”, instantaneously became a joke on the internet.

But the two events resemble each other on a deeper level. The chaotic governmental response in the initial few days of the disaster, which dealt another heavy blow to the government’s (remaining) credibility, betrays the fundamental lack of unity in the Chinese officialdom which often tries to project the image of a tightly clenched fist. And in both cases China’s societal forces make use of that precious vacuum to pierce into the territory with determination. The impact of such small breakthroughs, after years of retreat, is yet to be seen.

From the authority’s side, the difficulty with handling the Tianjin blast, as with the Wenzhou train wreck, lies with the structure under which the different administrative jurisdictions are organized. The accident happened in Tianjin, in a GEOGRAPHICAL sense. Administratively speaking, it happened within the bailiwick of the Tianjin Port Group, a state owned entity that falls under the “dual management” of both Tianjin and the Ministry of Transportation. And in that administrative enclave, the different regulatory responsibilities are divided like puzzle pieces among the Tianjin municipality, the Ministry and the Port Group. Fatefully, the permitting schemes relating to the storage of explosive chemicals and the fire department in charge of the port are run by the Port Group under an authorization from the Ministry, not by the municipality.

With the train accident, the Railway Ministry was ultimately responsible for what happened on the rail track, but since it also happened geographically in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, it made the local authority unavoidably involved. The tension between the Railway Ministry and the Wenzhou local government flared up in the initial stage of the rescue work, when the latter disagreed with the plan to remove the car from the track before confirming that nobody was still alive inside it. It put the Railway Ministry, and the entire official communication effort on embarrassing defense mode for five days, until Premier Wen Jiabao came to the rescue.

Official communication after the Tianjin blast was even more disastrous. An evaluation conducted by a think tank affiliated with the People’s Daily accused the six post-blast press conferences as “producing secondary communicational difficulties”, a sophisticated way of saying “they did more damage than good.” Instead of dispersing doubts, officials actually created more of it by acting completely clueless in front of the press. Censor did not help either: “Cutting the broadcasting is only counter-productive in this era of smart phones.”

While some were quick to ridicule the seemingly incompetent bureaucrats, others offered an alternative explanation: these officials, who invariably came from the municipal government, were meticulously following a clear bureaucratic logic. They did not want to second guess the intentions of their colleagues who were actually responsible for the incident. Neither did they want to cover somebody else’s back. Unlike their Wenzhou counterparts who made that tension explicit for everyone to see, the Tianjin authority took a much more passive approach. The theory goes that it is likely they really did not know what was stored inside that warehouse and had no authority to decide who should be in charge of the rescue work.

The apparent lack of mandate and coordination from the government side had a more far-reaching side-effect: its complete loss of the ability to set the agenda. Yes, the self-valorization is still there, but it was quickly muted by waves of to-the-point questions. The aftermath of the blast saw the return of the 24-hour news cycles that the Chinese society had not seen for a while. They were propelled by social media platforms such as Weibo, which fed new raw materials into public attention on a real time basis. Yet it was ultimately the more market oriented media outlets that had been driving the evolution of the discussion and the news agenda. After the initial shock by the magnitude of the explosion, it was the media that quickly drew the public’s attention toward the massive loss endured by the firemen who first responded to the accident. Southern Weekly’s decisive Aug 13 exclusive interview with a survived fireman, who told the newspaper on record that they were not informed of the hydro-reactive nature of the chemicals in the warehouse, set the tone for an intensive round of public questioning of the authority’s liability. The Paper rode on that tide and interviewed the fire department’s spokesperson at the central government level, who incidentally revealed the fact that those first-responding firemen did not fall under the official fire-fighting system, but were “hired hands” employed by the port itself. Caixin immediately followed on that lead by digging out the exact three teams that first showed up at the site and were instantaneously devoured by the explosions. Yet their sacrifice had not been accounted in the official death toll released to the public. The bitter irony of “unequal death” has since then become a commanding mood of the Chinese internet.

The Southern Weekly-Paper-Caixin news relay was impressive, but it was just one thread that the Chinese media were persistently following through. Simultaneously, other bold outlets, including a new Shanghai-based digital platform called Jiemian.com, were trying to uncover possible corruption behind the string of green lights that the warehouse owner (supposedly a private company) managed to obtain before setting up a deadly time bomb in the vicinity of a densely populated area. Clues led journalists to the management and shareholders of the company, including Zhi Feng, its General Manager, who happened to share a very rare surname with a former vice mayor of Tianjin. This line of investigation culminated at the end of the Aug 14 press conference where officials had to exit the venue under the bombardment of one single question: “Who is Zhi Feng?”

Four years ago, the train tragedy defined Sina Weibo as the no.1 social media outlet that had the potential to replace traditional market-orientation media as China’s agenda-setter. The Tianjin blast seems to have catalyzed the re-invention of the traditional media. The perfect storm of media inquiry this time excites a veteran observer into saluting his former colleagues: “In the past few days, most of the first-hand media coverage with added value all came from the familiar bloc of Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekly, Caixin and iNewsweek. Despite the increasingly suffocating and difficult environment, you guys are still charging ahead. Stay safe!” It indeed looks like a renaissance for which those news organizations have been saving up. Almost overnight, they unveiled to the world the formidable arsenal they have accumulated: WeChat live broadcasting, 360 degree panorama photography, and HTML5 aggregation of information. All of a sudden, drones seemed to have become a standard piece of equipment in a journalist’s backpack. And the images that they produced within hours of the incident stunned the world. Many of those news organizations probably have become substantially stronger after this battle: viewership of their materials on digital channels exploded, which almost certainly translates into a larger follower-base online.

A widely read blog by a young journalist who ventured into the core area of the explosion epitomizes this “charging ahead” spirit, showing that the “renaissance” likely goes beyond an instrumental level. Without even carrying a bottle of water, he sneaked into ground zero that was sealed off by the police and stayed in the war-zone for a full day to capture first-hand images of the event. These were heartbreaking documentations of the broken Chinese dreams. The most surreal pictures were the debris that was blown out of the apartment buildings: cash, a Teddy bear and a bouquet. “Everyone’s life is like a pottery jar with lots of stuff in it. But it’s too fragile. Shake it, and it’s broken.”

The metaphor is not new, nor is the sentiment. What’s interesting is how naturally a journalist’s eye-witness account of a blast scene turns into a sort of elegy for the vulnerability of middle class life. It is a resonance reinforced by almost every memorable mega-events in recent years, from the 2011 train wreck to the 2012 Beijing flooding to the Shanghai stampede earlier this year. The plight and insecurity of the Chinese urban middle class are part of what have fueled the pointed questioning and fearless investigation of the Chinese media. Just like what a survivor wrote after escaping from his expensive Vanke apartment building hundreds of meters away from the epicenter: “This high-end neighborhood is only two-hours of driving away from the Tiananmen Square. It’s full of foreigners and multinational corporate executives. Yet only a few banging noises rendered it an empty war zone. Who can imagine that nearby this ‘little Europe’ something equivalent to a tactic nuclear weapon has been installed?”

The familiar motif prompted an influential Weibo commentator to pull out a four-year-old post written at the wake of the train accident on what he termed “corruption terrorism”:

“At the early stage of corruption terrorism, the middle class does not have to worry too much. You are not the ones who work at coal mines or production lines. But when it further exacerbates, most of the population can’t stay out of it, as you cannot avoid taking a train, driving a car or going across a bridge. Your apartment may have a quality problem, so is the food you buy from the supermarket. In its most advanced stage, even the privileged cannot escape from it.”

It seems that after four full years, the country has arrived at the exact same spot. Just as his predecessor did after the Wenzhou train collision, Premier Li Keqiang’s belated arrival at the blast site brought certain order to the post-disaster disorientation. And one of the first things he had to say publicly was the commitment to equal treatment of firemen who lost their lives in the mission, a direct response to an item high on the media agenda.

Some were pessimistic. To them, there is little sign that the iron curtain shielding the corrupt politician-business bond, which is probably the real culprit of the explosion in the first place, is letting loose even a little bit, despite “almost half of Beijing’s best journalists concentrating their efforts on Tianjin.” But for other observers, the mushroom cloud over Tianjin might have changed something permanently: “After Tianjin, the Chinese public’s NYMBY (“not in my backyard”) protests against industrial facilities will almost certainly become unstoppable.” Be it a legacy or a spell, this sounds like the most plausible post-Tianjin scenario that the country needs to face. We may still be circling around our Ground Zero, but something is definitely growing out of it. At the moment, we can’t tell if it’s going to be beautiful or ugly.

Titanic on the Yangtze

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There are no deadly icebergs on the Yangtze. But the river can be as treacherous as the capricious Arctic Ocean. At around 21:30 on Jun 1, the Oriental Star, a triple deck Yangtze River cruise ship, reached its tragic turn of fate in the middle of a section of the river that was barely 750 meters wide. Amid what was supposed to be an extreme weather event which may have involved a violent tornado, the huge ship, with 456 passengers on board, was instantaneously overturned. When people around the country woke up to the shocking news the next day, what they could see was the ominous sight of a completely belly up ship floating on the river, like the body of a dead whale.

A high profile rescue effort not unlike the one surrounding the sunken Korean ferry MV Sewol quickly ensued. Up to this moment, after 9 days of intense search, 8 passengers remain missing. The death toll on the other hand has reached 434. Only 14 have been successfully rescued.

Much can be said about navigational safety, crew judgment and the execution of the rescue mission. But the one thing unique that emerged from this disasters is the confirmation that disaster communication in this country has thoroughly morphed into a kind of grand “mood management” exercise which involves state control as well as the negotiation within the society itself. The fundamental questions that are being asked by those watching the unfolding of the tragedy are not “what happened” and “why did it happen”, but “how should people feel about it” and “when is the right time to feel about what.” You see debates about whether it is right to be skeptical about government conclusions of the accident, or whether it is appropriate to feel proud of the country when so many people are still under water. You also see strong reactions to the authority’s attempt to downplay the sorrow of the victims’ relatives, and the official media’s overwhelming emphasis on the greatness of the state rescue efforts. Deep down, people seem to believe that how their countrymen FEEL about the disaster matters a lot on a substantive level. No wonder that on the second day of the accident, official news outlets called on the public to “suspend their questioning” and “empty out a virtual highway for useful information to pass”, as if in their mind, people’s sentiments could actually block the passage of imaginary informational ambulances that need to somehow “get” to predestined places.

Part of it can be seen as an old tug of war between the state and the society, where the former, out of social stability considerations, often tries to divert public sentiments towards “desirable” directions, sometimes using utterly clumsy methods. For example, in a widely ridiculed report, the Xinhua News Agency’s Hubei provincial branch opened the article with the nauseating cliché that “the river is merciless but the human world is full of love”, referring to the “grandiose national rescue action.” The online world responded to it with merciless mockery. Shrewd observers see patterns in such behavior, identifying two common strategies of state “mood control” efforts: “national muscle flexing”(兴邦) and “empathy shifting.”(移情) The former refers to a framing that highlights national strength and unity, so as to divert attention from more unsettling details of the disaster. The latter is a technique to have the public focusing on sympathy-worthy figures: the victims, their sons, mothers, wives, who bring out the warmth of human tenderness rather than the coldness of facts. None of the two strategies are coercive. They are achieved by allowing journalists and commentators broad freedom to pursue these tracks, while creating subtle hurdles in the way of hard-core truth-finding. Time is also a factor: digging up facts and details can be time consuming, but interviewing rescuers or survivors is not.

The Chinese web society responded to the above tactics with its own increasingly sophisticated antidote: sarcasm and parody. Almost overnight, people’s WeChat walls were filled with funny, spicy spoofs that make fun of what they saw as silly propagandist maneuvers. One viral article named and shamed “the 10 most disgusting news headlines of the Yangtze ship wreckage incident”, while another one pretended to be a journalism textbook instructing journalists about how to write “moving” pieces about disasters happened in China.

That said, the Chinese society’s obsession with the emotional dimensions of a disaster cannot be entirely reduced to a state/society dynamic. There is a genuine collective struggle about how to come to terms with a tragedy, and the debate about “what to feel” represents the bewilderment of a hurt community. For instance, when truly heroic figures appear, is it right to express gratefulness and offer compliment? Weird as it may sound, this was the key discussion around Guan Dong, the scuba diver who saved two passengers from the bottom of the river.

Guan was among the dozens of divers who were sent down into the muddy, torrential river to save the hundreds of passengers trapped in the ship. It was a dangerous task to say the least (remember, two divers died in the rescue mission of the Korean MV Sewol). Weather conditions remained terrible for the days after the incident and visibility under the water was close to nothing. It was in such extreme circumstances that Guan managed to pull out two survivors. To save them, he let them use his own breather. When he emerged again on the surface of the water, his nose could be seen bleeding due to under water pressure.

His feat soon became the focus of media attention and online bickering. While nobody denied the nature of Guan’s heroism, the suffusing sentiment of feel-good celebration made some wonder if it was a bit over the top when hundreds were still dying under the water and their relatives were in a state of tortured despair. This was where a divergence of opinion occurred. One group deemed the celebration premature and should wait until the rescue mission was completed. The other considered it legitimate as a way to boost the morale of rescuers who were enduring extreme pressure. “He could die in his next shift. Should celebrate him when he’s still alive,” said one commentator.

The search for decency in the treatment of their diseased fellow-countrymen seems to have become a recurring theme in disasters like this. In 2010, thousands on thousands of Shanghai residents lined up in the streets to offer flowers to those who lost their lives in the big fire that devoured a residential building in the middle of the city, a defiant act that was deemed “the renaissance of civic spirit” in China. In the Yangtze case, the local residents of Jianli, the town closest to the sinking, again touched people’s hearts and minds through their selfless support to the victims’ relatives and journalists.

One thing that people do repeatedly after such disasters is turning to other countries’ experiences for reference. Japan once again became a source of inspiration: a Weibo post about how Japan responded to and commemorated a similar incident in the 1950s resonated strongly within the Chinese web sphere, even though some felt repelled by that country. You can’t say such resonance within the society is futile. After all, it was sentiments like this that gave birth to China’s first national mourning period for ordinary people, the tens of thousands of victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The disaster reminded people of the Titanic. They thought of the graceful captain who sank with his ship, after arranging the evacuation of the children, women and the elderly. It became a sort of shared imagination of naval decency which led people to feel angry about the fact that the first one rescued from the Oriental Star was the captain. The resentment was so strong that it warranted a serious explanation: as the ship was overturned in a matter of minutes, there would have been no time for him to act as gracefully as the Titanic captain. And when rescuers saw him in the river, they couldn’t just ignore him.

All Taboos Are Created Equal. But Some Are More Repulsive.

BiFujian

If an event finds its way onto the dinner table of my parents-in-law, it means it’s turning into a phenomenon. More so if their own social groups, made of retired former state-owned company employees, who are otherwise immune to cyberspace chitchats, are discussing about it vigorously in their WeChat circles.

The recent misfortune of (former) CCTV variety show host Bi Fujian, falls under this category. On Apr 6, a video clip showing a drunken Bi chanting a modified version of a cultural-revolution-era Peking opera at a private dinner party appeared on the internet and quickly turned into a mega-cyberevent. It was not so much the drunkenness but rather the adaptation that got him into trouble. In the playful and somewhat vulgar adaptation, he referred to Chairman Mao as “that son of a bitch who caused us lots of suffering” and the People’s Liberation Army as “just bluffing.”

Bi’s tremendous fame surely is a definitive factor in the blow-up. He is the host of a prime-time CCTV variety show that promotes grassroots performers. His popularity, especially among a middle aged female audience, wins him the privilege to host the annual CCTV spring festival gala, and the nickname “national grandpa”.

But other elements surrounding the video, the fact that it was leaked from a private party, the reference to Mao, and his communist party membership, played out in a more significant way that shapes the online debate.

Is this just one of those “hot mic” moments where celebrities inadvertently reveal their “real” thoughts? At least the Global Times thinks so. In its Apr 7 editorial, it puts this event in the context of a “globally common phenomenon of leaking celebrities’ private utterances onto the internet”, and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulder of Bi himself (“He has only himself to blame”). In terms of the key elements involved, the incident indeed resembles scandals such as Donald Sterling’s (owner of the NBA basketball team LA Clippers) PRIVATE comments to his girlfriend that he did not want her bringing African Americans to games or taking pictures with them, which led to a big controversy in the United States and Sterling’s removal from the league.

Yet liberal commentator on Weibo still can’t let go of the “private” nature of Bi’s chanting. Some of them see the development as a horrifying infringement of freedom of speech. As scholar Cui Weiping puts it, “We thought in a post-totalitarian era, everybody can say anything in private. As long as you don’t broadcast it, it’s ok.” Some of them go even further by saying that “the bottom line is: speech cannot be punished; thought cannot be policed. If you violate these rules, you are anti-civilization and anti-human.”

Really?

By pushing the issue hard as a battle for freedom of speech (in private), liberals provide ammunitions to their criticizers online (who cite the Sterling case as a slap on their faces), and also risk missing the true point of the whole thing: policing a lingering political taboo in the Chinese society.

That’s exactly what the Maoists are trying to do. From the very beginning, their attack on Bi’s denigration of Mao has been politically loaded. “As a CCTV host, Bi’s insult of our founding father, his mockery of the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party is flabbergasting. He himself is a party member and an army veteran. Such a betrayal of one’s faith is thought provoking.” An Op-Ed on the Communist Youth League’s official website goes even further by making it explicit that Mao is the ultimate “political bottom line”: “Mao Zedong is a giant of his era. He is the founder of the People’s Republic… Even if it’s a private party, even if it’s a private space, not everybody, everything can be mocked and satirized like this.”

Dealing with the legacy of a previous leader has always been a thorny issue for an authoritarian regime. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev probably knows it the best when his 1956 secret speech lambasting Stalin unleashed political shock waves all across Eastern Europe. Fully aware of this, China has been very careful in its handling of Mao’s postmortem reputation, even though many of those post-Mao leaders (including Deng Xiaoping and President Xi) had personally suffered from Mao-era political persecutions. It’s within this context that President Xi made his famously dialectic and Newspeakish comment that “we cannot use the past 30 years of history (opening and reform) to negate the party’s 30-year rule before that; neither can we use the previous 30 years (Mao era) to negate the later 30 years.”

By charging aggressively to enforce the political taboo on Mao, conservatives also inadvertently triggered a backlash that is only barely short of an online referendum. It is very clear that many reactions to this incident have been stirred up by the memory of Mao-era horrors. As an 80-year-old college professor writes on his Weibo, “for us old persons, that comment of Bi is just plain truth.” Others invoked the “culture of tattling” that was a feature of Cultural Revolution tragedies where wives tattled on their husbands, and sons tattled on their fathers, just to show their loyalty to the revolutionary cause. One of the posts was sneaky enough to bring the elder Xi (President Xi’s father)’s own experience to the attention of the netizens: “Xi Zhongxun was tattled on by his communist colleague in Shaanxi, and all of a sudden he became an anti-party, anti-Mao element to be banished from power for the next decade.” If comparing a leaked video to Mao-era tattling is a bit far-fetched, the hard-liners’ vituperative diatribes on social media only reinforced the mood. The ultimate moment came when Bi Fujian made his public apology on Weibo on Apr 9. Comments, as many as 100,000 at one point, flooded under his post. And before they were being deleted, a great number of them were in SUPPORT of him. If left untouched, it could easily become an incomplete yet revealing polling of the public’s real take of Mao’s legacy. All the tens of thousands of comments were deleted in a matter of hours.

It is one of those rare occasions when you need to appreciate the restraint shown by official media outlets such as the Global Times. In its signature anti-climax tone, the above mentioned editorial contains passages like this: “If we only use this video to make judgments on Bi’s political leaning, it is obviously unsound. This is not something that should be encouraged after decades of opening and reform… It is also not encouraged to release a celebrity’s private utterances online without his or her consent.” This is where some less melodramatic reading of the event starts to converge. As one coolheaded commentator puts it: “No, this is not going to affect YOUR freedom to say anything at a private party, cuz you are not Bi Fujian. Even if you call the police and tell them you said so, they won’t give a damn. Bi is a state-owned TV station employee and a party member. He is subject to an employee’s code of conduct and party discipline.”

If taboos and political correctness are universal checks against freewheeling speeches, and their very existence does not constitute an infringement of personal rights, then is this Bi controversy much ado about nothing? Maybe not. Not all taboos are equal. And (interestingly) an economist most accurately summarizes the difference:

“In the U.S. you can mock the President in every each way as you like, but never caricature disadvantaged communities such as African Americans. In China, it is ok to say whatever denigrating things about migrant workers or the disabled, but don’t say anything negative about the leaders. If you think this is the same, I have no further comments.”

The latest news says that CCTV has suspended Bi Fujian and has removed his name from the catalogue of CCTV hosts on its official website.

China’s Most Dangerous Woman Meets Her Most Dangerous Rival

HuShuli  Guowengui

The event of the week is roughly the Chinese equivalence of this: the Huffington Post carries an in-depth story revealing that Donald Trump has built his business empire with the help of corrupt high-level officials at the NSA, who used illegal surveillance methods to crush his business competitors. Trump shoots back with a tweet accusing Arianna Huffington of adultery with his main business competitor and using her website to smear his name for the sake of her lover. He even asserts that Huffington and the man has a son out of wedlock and published the kid’s Social Security Number.

Now, replace the Huffington Post with Caixin Weekly, Arianna Huffington with Hu Shuli, and Donald Trump with Guo Wengui, the billionaire who owns Beijing’s landmark Pangu Plaza, and you get the picture. But to fully comprehend what’s going on, you need to have the mind of a Frank Underwood.

Guo Wengui is a name that was unknown to most people in China until the end of 2014. At that time, a nasty dispute between him and the former CEO of the Beida Founder group regarding top management appointments escalated into a mutual tattling that led to the latter’s arrest a few weeks later. Guo remote-controlled the fight from abroad and had thence forth stayed outside of China. According to Chinese media reports, this fight was a prelude to the downfall of a Deputy National Security Minister, who was a mutual friend of both of them and had used his special power in the security apparatus (a department that deploys China’s secret police) to protect their business interests.

These events put this otherwise low-key billionaire under the spotlight and arouse the interest of daring investigative journalists, including Ms. Hu Shuli’s Caixin team.(See their coverage of Guo Wengui in English)

Caixin Weekly, a leading news magazine in China, is known for its in-depth coverage of the country’s most hefty political and economic issues. Hu Shuli, the founder of Caixin, is considered the “female Godfather” of Chinese journalism and “the most dangerous woman in China.” She treads the fine line between truth-finding and China’s boundaries for freedom of expression, a tricky business of which she is a master. Under her leadership, Caixin has become the go-to place for authoritative reporting of all aspects of the Chinese society. Some also believe that her success so far is in large part due to her personal connections well up to the highest echelon of the Chinese leadership, a network that she cultivated back in the early 90s when she was a reporter for one of China’s earliest business newspapers. One of those contacts is Wang Qishan, then a reform-minded party upstart, and now President Xi’s anti-corruption tsar. (See Evan Osnos’s 2009 profile of Hu for the New Yorker)

Over the past one year or two, along with the intensification of the administration’s anti-corruption campaign, Caixin’s exclusive coverage of those fallen under the campaign’s hammer and anvil has won it applause and also a bit of disdain. Those applauding consider Caixin the standard bearer of journalistic professionalism in China. Those questioning it muse about the extent to which it is being used by one faction of the party against another. Its now legendary coverage of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest ranking official being charged so far, exemplifies these competing views. The report (an unprecedented full-volume coverage that amounts to a mini-biography) came out minutes after the official announcement of Zhou’s disgrace. On the one hand, the thoroughness of its investigations (a year-long process) immediately inspired a sense of awed respect among media observers all over the internet (later the lead journalists won awards for this report). But on the other hand, the seemingly unusual access enjoyed by Caixin journalists to sources surrounding one of China’s most sensitive political figures also brought questions regarding Caixin’s “special” role in the anti-corruption campaign.

Such mixed perceptions played out in a very big way last week, when Guo Wengui launched his nasty personal attack on Hu Shuli from abroad. The open letter he released through his company’s Weibo accounts (now deleted) asserts that Hu has ulterior motives in doing the investigative piece about him, namely to smear his name in order to benefit her “lover” the Founder group CEO currently under investigation. Furthermore, the letter goes sensual in detailing the “sexual relationship” between Hu and her lover, their “secret son” and even Hu’s sexual appetite. Besides that, he also accuses Hu of using her magazine as a tool to blackmail other enterprises in exchange of expensive advertisement contracts.

It is interesting that Guo picked Hu as his target, as Caixin was not the only media outlet that did investigative stories about him lately, nor the first to do so. Both Tencent’s Prism, a WeChat-based outlet for in-depth original stories, and Caijing Magazine did similar stories about Guo’s rise from a nobody in rural Shandong province to one of China’s richest business tycoons. All these stories depict Guo as a cunning, ruthless “street fighter” who builds up his wealth by crushing anybody in his way. He has torn down minister-level officials using secretly taped sex videos, and his partnership with high level officials in the national security apparatus was a key to his success.

Knowing Guo’s style, one probably would not be surprised by his move against Hu. After all, if his purpose is to stir up a controversy, Hu proves to be a more suitable target than lesser known journalists. And his tactic to play into voyeurism, the basest instinct on cyberspace, also seems to have paid off. Hu’s sympathizers were upset by how happily netizens are willing to spread the defamatory letter, even with stated “doubts”. Guo also tapped into another dark side of the Chinese cyberspace: its cynical attitude toward truth in general and the resulting disregard for the relative weight of evidence. In other words, many Chinese netizens tend to treat any given information with the same level of (dis)trust. Anything could be true or false, no matter what evidence you present. And this makes a fertile ground for character assassination. In 2012, a prolonged online campaign to discredit popular writer Han Han in effect pushed him out of debates on social affairs, even though the attackers produced no solid evidence to buttress their claims that all his previous writing was done by shadow writers. Hu’s supporters were quick to point out the outrageousness in Guo’s accusations, especially concerning she having a kid with the so-called lover. As a public figure constantly in the spotlight, it is pretty unfathomable that Hu could be pregnant at the age of 50 (based on the identity card information Guo disclosed of the “kid”) without catching the attention of the public. Many Hu’s defenders, among them are prominent editors and journalists, were disheartened by how gleefully even some media operatives spread this piece of junk.

But the apparent ridiculousness of Guo’s accusations led some observers to wonder if a distraction is actually all that he wants. If Guo is indeed a shark fish in China’s muddy water as the media have suggested, why did he present something that is so blatant a lie? Maybe he has a message to send to someone else, one commentator bemuses, and maybe his actual target is not Hu but the person behind her. He is sending a coded warning to her patrons in the leadership that he is in possession of damaging materials not of her, but of them.

This leads some observers into believing that this fight is just the surface of much fiercer power struggles deep underneath. And it is in a way linked to the above-mentioned perception of Hu as being somehow protected or even “fed” by much larger forces that are currently driving the anti-corruption campaign. There are also speculations about who is actually behind Guo. But no matter whether such conjectures are true, one effect of this Guo-Hu feud is the further perpetuation of the public perception that the anti-corruption campaign is merely a factional struggle for power. For the leadership, such a perception can be damaging, as it undermines the legitimacy and moral high ground that the campaign occupies. That’s why until very recently, official media outlets such as the pro-Xi WeChat account under the People’s Daily have been pointedly rebutting claims that the campaign is a selective purge of political rivals. They argue that the campaign has actually indicted Xi’s previous colleagues and subordinates in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, something that’s overlooked by the Western media, particularly the New York Times. But they never clarify whether the purge is of a different nature, where the line is not drawn along personal connections, but between those “born red” and the “hired hands”. (See Evan Osnos’s most recent article “Born Red” for more details) As long as such doubts are not quenched, the campaign may always be seen by cynical bystanders as a grandiose dog fight.

Hu Shuli never responded to the controversy directly[1]. Her stellar reputation within China’s media establishment ensures that plenty of journalistic heavy weights come to her defense voluntarily either out of personal affection or out of a sense of solidarity. On Mar 30, one day after Guo’s open letter appeared on the internet, she quietly posted on her own Weibo account the links to the original Caixin report, without a single word of comment, as if to say: let the report speaks for itself.

[1] Although Caixin the company did send out a statement on Mar 30 saying they were initiating legal actions against Guo’s company for libel.

For Party Propaganda, a “New Normal” Is in Play?

The air over the Great Hall of the People these days feels qualitatively different from a few years ago. If you’ve been in China long enough to remember the “twin sessions”[1] under the previous administration, you may be struck by the re-connection between what’s being discussed within the walls of the Great Hall and what’s being talked about on the street, concrete or cyber, today.

It wasn’t like this a few years ago, especially at sessions where there were no leadership changes. We Chinese call these sessions “small-year sessions” just to highlight the inconsequential nature of such gatherings of two rubber-stamp institutions. In those “good old days”, two distinctive conversations happened in parallel: the one within the Great Hall was stubbornly boring and hollow, the one outside was marked by smart-ass cynicism. The cleavage between the two was so wide that it can be seen from space. For many years what dominated media and internet spaces during such sessions had been so-called “silly proposals” (雷人提案) and pictures like this:

twinsessions

The shift to a new pattern happens like taking an airplane: you don’t feel too much when it takes off, but the next moment you look outside the window, you are 8 miles above ground.

It all started with the CPPCC opening press conference last year (can anyone still recollect one single CPPCC opening press conference under the Hu-Wen administration?). At that occasion, CPPCC spokesperson Lu Xinhua responded to a question about rumors concerning former Politburo member Zhou Yongkang by famously saying “you know what I mean”(你懂的), an expression popular on social media. This clever, delicate response to a question that people actually cared about marked that initial hand-shake between the two separate universes.

If in the future, books are to be written about this administration, its decisive re-invention of party propaganda should definitely be a key component of the bigger story. We can debate about whether it is a blessing or curse for the Chinese society. What’s indisputable is its formidable ability to focus and shape public opinion for its own purposes.

We’ve briefly addressed this topic in a previous post. But at the twin sessions this year, things get clearer for us to see how orchestrated a party-led PR campaign can be. Once again, Lu Xinhua plays forward for the team. Since the CPPCC session always opens first, his opening press conference occupies a unique spot that can set the tone for the coming two weeks. And he doesn’t disappoint. Resorting to yet another social media catch-phrase, this time he describes the party’s anti-corruption campaign as “capricious” (任性), and indicates that no one enjoys impunity. Such head-line-friendly sound-bites are almost like a reservation for newspaper and website front page spaces. Soon, they ushered in the actual dinner guests. Barely one hour had passed since Lu’s cute statement when the military’s leading website released information condemning fourteen high-level military officers on corruption charges. The national press corp struggled a bit in recognizing some of the obscure names (some even mistook one officer for a different person). But they did not fail to recognize Major General Guo Zhenggang, the son of a former deputy chairman of the Central Military Committee.  If we stick to the dinner metaphor, what happened next was a national feast on the bodies of the poor father and son. There are playful allusions as expected. But more prepared media outlets quickly handed out dense investigative pieces about the fallen general, his wife and their shadowy businesses. These articles appeared literally minutes after the official announcement, prompting some observers to complain half-jokingly that “I cannot write such an investigative piece in five minutes.” You know what I mean.

If this is fishery, whoever is behind this campaign is not baiting but rather bottom trawling public attention. Tai Kung Pao’s website is more explicit about what is going on: “In previous twin sessions, based on some kind of ‘stability” considerations, they would often try to deflect attention from any particular issue. But under the anti-corruption campaign of the current administration, they would rather warm-up the issue beforehand, then use the twin conference to stir up a focused and heated discussion, in order to align the thinking and consolidate the consensus.”

What’s more revealing is the fact that even when people talk about show business representatives this year, (celebrities such as Jackie Chan, who attend the sessions as “political advisers”), their focus is still on corruption. It used to be the case that these celebrities add “flavor” to a hopelessly dull meeting. Now they are fully integrated to an overarching grand narrative. Plenty of spotlight has been thrown on the fate of star comedian Huang Hong, who made his name from popular comedy sketches at the annual Spring Festival Galas.  As he sat inside the Great Hall this week, news came that he was dismissed as the head of the People’s Liberation Army Bayi Film Studio. It fueled speculations about his entanglement with fallen leaders of the military. The faded luster of former A-list singers such as Song Zuying and Tan Jing, both CPPCC members, also becomes a source of curious amusement. A brilliant treatise on-line ventures a theory linking the leadership’s new propaganda ambitions with the decline of previously treasured propaganda singers. It argues that:

“The top leader needs to establish his authority in a range of areas. He will not tolerate a long-time situation of crumbling party discipline and crass party art. Revitalizing the art and propaganda apparatus so that more political songs can be accepted by the general public is certainly part of his agenda.”

Until more evidence emerges from behind the scene, we can’t really tell if what we are seeing now is truly well-choreographed communication maneuvers or just events that coincidentally bumped into each other. A West-Wing-style comms team serving the current leadership might just be a fantasy. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the evolution of party propaganda into more sophisticated forms, sometimes unrecognizable as propaganda, is happening. The sleeping elephant is waking up and wants to reclaim the room now.

 

P.S. “Under the Dome” is now officially censored, even though the discussion about it is still lingering in a big way on the internet. Is it being seen as a distraction to the twin sessions? Only THEY will know.

[1] “Twin sessions” refers to the annual National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) sessions, a two-week event stretching from early to mid-March every year.