Tea Leaf Nation

In China, the Confrontation That Wasn’t

An easily debunked rumor about Michelle Obama shows the difficulties that U.S. officials face in managing their message there.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama’s weeklong tour of China, with her two daughters and her mother in tow, began on March 20 and has included a stop at the Forbidden City in Beijing, a visit to see the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an, and a scheduled March 26 visit to pandas in the western province of Sichuan. The White House has stressed that the first lady’s official visit will steer clear of political controversy — unlike earlier tours of China by former U.S. first ladies like Hillary Clinton, who criticized China’s human rights record on her 1995 trip, and Laura Bush, who visited the Thailand-Myanmar border in 2008 and urged China to exert pressure on Myanmar’s repressive military junta. During her visit, Obama has stayed active on English-language social media by blogging about her sojourn, posting regularly to her Twitter account and answering American children’s China-related questions on YouTube. On the Chinese web, she has performed something of a takeover of the popular account of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Weibo, China’s Twitter, sharing images that include Obama walking along the Great Wall with her daughters and smiling as she takes a toboggan ride. But Obama’s charm offensive hasn’t been enough to keep the power of politics, or rumor, at bay.

In a March 22 speech at prestigious Peking University in Beijing, Obama dipped her toe ever so lightly in what some might call the political when she expressed firm support for Internet freedom, saying, "We have seen that countries are stronger and more prosperous when the voices of and opinions of all their citizens can be heard." While Obama’s possible jab at Chinese censorship made waves in Western media, something she didn’t say has reverberated throughout Weibo. Kong Qingdong, a professor of Chinese studies at Peking University well known for his full-throated support of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote on March 23 to his 2.7 million Weibo followers that during Obama’s speech, "A female student stood up and asked [Obama], ‘Isn’t the United States strong because its intelligence agency is listening to the voice of its people? What exactly is the difference between listening and monitoring?’" Kong wrote the U.S. first lady was "rendered speechless," finally replying that she would not discuss politics during her tour.

The apocryphal anecdote — easily debunked by watching a video of Obama’s speech — has been shared almost 33,000 times, despite its repeated denunciation as false by many of the 9,000 users leaving comments. Commenters are particularly irked by what they see as Chinese web censors’ selective enforcement of laws against the spread of "online rumors," under which Internet users responsible for posting falsities shared more than 500 times can face criminal charges, including detention and arrest. In contrast to Kong’s post, online speech criticizing public figures such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are usually deleted with great dispatch, and it’s likely that a similarly false post about Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan would have been deleted with equal haste. Hu Ling, a reporter with Hong Kong-based Phoenix New Media, declared in response to Kong’s post, "This is 100 percent rumor. I was there."

Yet Kong’s anecdote, while false, has touched a genuine nerve among Chinese web users. A steady stream of revelations about sweeping surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency — most recently its secret infiltration of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, revealed on March 22 by the New York Times and German newspaper Der Spiegel — has made Obama’s championing of Internet freedom seem somewhat ironic. One user wrote, "Regardless of whether or not a Peking University student asked the question, the logic is still there." Even if the story is apocryphal, he continued, "I wish it were as Professor Kong said, that someone stood up and questioned everything that hegemons do." The editor of Peking University Business Review, who claimed also to be present at Obama’s talk, replied, "I wanted to ask [that question] but had no opportunity; I could only ask the people around me. And many people around me were all asking each other."

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy. @BethanyAllenEbr

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