Tea Leaf Nation

Ghost in the Machine

Ghost in the Machine

The late Lu Xun, one of China’s most influential modern writers, is usually found in textbooks and anthologies. But on Oct. 27, Lu made a surprise appearance on the Chinese social web when a user of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, posted a photo-shopped image showing the literary giant confessing on state-run China Central Television (CCTV) while clad in a prison uniform. The subtitle depicts Lu saying, "I did not write any of these essays." Many of Lu’s works promote critical thinking and political awareness.

The picture, which was retweeted more than 5,000 times, represents one netizen’s attempt to mock the growing number of "public confessions" on state media. Since August, at least six people accused of wrongdoing have confessed on state television. From influential bloggers like Charles Xue to businessmen like British consultant Peter Humphrey, the men — in prison uniforms, some with their heads shaven — all admitted to their crimes and apologized, sometimes before their cases went to court.

Many Chinese observers doubt the legitimacy or legal efficacy of these confessions. In one widely shared comment, Weibo user Ding Laifeng, a social commentator, wrote, "From now on China can get rid of its court system. Just detain the people you say are guilty for a few days, put them on CCTV, and make them confess."

One day after the Lu Xun satire emerged on Weibo, Li Chengpeng, a blogger and social commentator with over seven million followers, also got in on the act. Li tweeted a similar picture with the caption, "I did not see Liu Hezhen getting shot." In 1926, Lu wrote a famous essay remembering the death of Liu, a student of Lu’s who was shot and killed in a March 1926 protest attempting to petition China’s military government. Censors promptly deleted Li’s tweet.

Lu Xun’s "confession" serves to poke fun at the Communist Party’s attempt to sway public opinion against the suspects before the law has had its say. Chinese netizens often resort to satire to express political opinions, particularly when direct criticism of central authorities is likely to lead to censorship, detention, or even physical harm. A popular cartoonist who calls himself Rebel Pepper captured this fear when he took to Weibo to post a cartoon of a man hanging from CCTV’s iconic Beijing headquarters as if in the gallows. The accompanying text reads, "Finally I’m on CCTV." For many Chinese entangled with the judicial system, the less famous they are, the better.