- By Christina LarsonChristina Larson is an award-winning journalist based in Beijing.
In the interval between when BBC aired reports of Kim Jong Il’s death on Monday and when CCTV and other Chinese state media got around to making their own reports in the late morning, the Chinese Internet was already abuzz with news and commentary on the North Korean leader’s passing, from famous and unknown Weibo users alike. Any remaining notion that Chinese netizens wait for Party papers with Beijing’s stamp of approval to tell them what’s going on in the rest of the world was, once again, disproven.
One of the first to weigh in was Hu XuJin, editor of the Global Times, whose freewheeling personal Weibo account has more followers (1,523,565) than the newspaper’s own Weibo. His long post began: "North Korea has announced the death of Kim Jong Il. The stability and future of North Korea now face a test. South Korea and the United States will spare no effort to influence NK, and even threaten it. China should not back down at this critical moment. China should resolutely defend the special relationship between China and NK, which is crucial to the strategic interests of China in East Asia. China should help NK onto a normal prosperous road."
Among the Weibo responses from ordinary users, however, nationalism was not necessarily the dominant response – often cynicism and humor were, regarding both the North Korea-China relationship and the nature of authoritarian regimes. "Does the system of hereditary monarchy belongs to the socialism with Korean characteristics?" one Weibo user wrote. "If Kim Jong Un becomes the new leader of DPRK, it certainly shows the essence of North Korea as a feudalist country," wrote another. And one more, "DPRK lost a fat man again." And, then, too, a series of bawdy jokes, like this one: "Kim Jong Il died of overwork. Yes, he had six wives – anyone would become fatigued. And was there a lot of sex on the train?" (Kim Jong Il was famously afraid of flying, and always took a special secure train on trips to China.)
More ominously, Zhang Wen, a memorial of the editorial board of China Newsweek (no relation to the U.S.-based Newsweek), wrote: "The collapse of North Korean is in near future, and the unification of Korean peninsular is in near future."
As Kim’s death came on the heels of Czech dissident leader and poet Vaclav Havel, many Weibo users also compared the two men’s very different legacies, of freedom and dictatorship. (Xinhua published a dubiously truncated obituary of Havel yesterday). One Weibo user wrote: "Both Havel and Kim Jong Il have died; one let us see the efforts of a man of conscience, while the other the stubbornness of a dictator." Another: "The only way in which Kim Jong Il ever came in front of Havel was by dying first." The Chinese poet Sang Ke wrote, "Mr. Havel, had it not been for you before, I would have walked in the dark even longer. Thank you." But as Cheng Yizhong, a Chinese journalist with an independent streak, observed sadly, with a nod to North Korea and perhaps China as well: "Havel passes away, but totalitarianism remains."