Tea Leaf Nation

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

Did a billionaire Chinese microblogger briefly return to the digital public square, just days after his release from confinement?

Fair use/Sina Weibo
Fair use/Sina Weibo

"One hundred and thirty four days later, I returned home. My wife said I looked thin, and a bit tired." These appear to have been the words of Wang Gongquan, a Chinese venture capitalist turned activist, in a Jan. 29 post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, that has since been deleted. If so, it marks a surprising, if brief, re-engagement with social media, the same medium that helped land Wang in Communist Party cross-hairs in the first place. 

The billionaire Wang has been known as an outspoken liberal voice for years, a rarity among wealthy Chinese. In 2005, Wang met and befriended rights activist Xu Zhiyong and later supported the "New Citizens’ Movement" that Xu had co-founded, which called for Chinese citizens to "bid farewell to autocracy." Authorities arrested Wang in September 2013 — on the same charges on which Xu had been detained months earlier — and released Wang on Jan. 22, declaring that he had confessed to joining Xu in criminal behavior. (Xu was sentenced on Jan. 26 to four years in prison for "gathering crowds to disturb public order," which included "public spaces on the Internet.") Despite enduring what Wang’s former lawyer says were 92 separate instances of interrogation, Wang appears to have decided he was not ready to forfeit his public role completely. 

About two hours after its first post, the account shared a photograph of a handkerchief inscribed with a heart and the words, "I love you." The account holder wrote that his wife had given him the cloth while he was in prison. "I could not hold back tears" upon reading it, the post read. The author also wrote that "during the trial" he "decided to give up" on what he called "60 straight days of defiance and games" by choosing to confess. Sharon Hom, executive director of overseas Chinese NGO Human Rights in China, told Foreign Policy that her organization has heard reports of Wang spending 60 days in solitary confinement. The post may have been an oblique attempt for Wang to explain that he did not wish to confess, but was driven to do so.

Although the Weibo account could not be confirmed as Wang’s, it appeared authentic. Its handle refers to Yeshe Yungdrung, a Tibetan name that some monks assume, with a profile saying it belonged to "a controversial person." Wang, certainly controversial, also became a Buddhist in 2004, the same year he quit his membership in the ruling Communist Party. The post accompanied a photograph (shown above) of a man who appears to be Wang. Bespectacled and clad in black, the man holds a mug in his right hand; his left appears to show damage or bruising around the upper part of his fingers.

The account had amassed over 10,000 followers within 24 hours of its appearance before it got the ax. (By contrast, Wang’s original Weibo account had accumulated over 1.5 million followers before being deleted in September 2012). During the account’s brief existence, prominent and knowledgeable Weibo commenters had joined everyday users to flood the account with messages of support. According to the website FreeWeibo, which tracks Weibo censorship, the platform’s operator, Sina Corp., promptly deleted many of those messages. Censored posts include a post that simply read, "baptism." Another welcome, also deleted, referred to Wang’s re-emergence as a "hero’s return." A number of followers mentioned "public rights" in their tweets, a term that’s a homonym for Wang’s given name. 

Wang’s apparent re-entry into social media, and particularly Sina Weibo, comes as something of a surprise. Although Wang’s Weibo account had been deleted for about a year when he was arrested, the timing of his incarceration coincided with a crackdown on several liberal "Big Vs," Chinese slang for influential or widely followed microbloggers. Following that clampdown, Weibo has lost much of its power as a virtual public square — at least for now. That makes Wang’s brief return to its fringes all the more daring; he lacked the safety in numbers he may have felt the last time he strode onto that platform. And now he knows firsthand what an angry government can do.

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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