Tea Leaf Nation

Is This the New Face of China’s Silent Majority?

China's president recently lauded Zhou Xiaoping for spreading "positive energy." But many of his writings are rants against the United States.

Weibo/Fair Use
Weibo/Fair Use

On Oct. 15, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a “Forum on Art and Literature” in Beijing. To students of Chinese history, the title of the event was familiar; in 1942, then Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong gave his signature “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art.” At that earlier forum, Mao said that “literature and art are subordinate to politics.” That statement changed the fate of millions of Chinese people, beginning a highly controlled ideological era in which artists became (and could only be) spokespeople for the ruling party. Seventy years later, at a forum attended by a few dozen prominent authors, scriptwriters, actors, dancers, and other government officials, Xi called for art workers to serve socialist ends and not to be “slaves” to the market.

Xi’s remarks touched a national nerve, spurring eager conversations on social media the next day. On Weibo, China’s Twitter, a search for “Forum on Art and Literature” yields 230,000 results. Many netizens directed their ire at a particular participant in the forum: author Zhou Xiaoping. Xi had specifically lauded Zhou, as well as another forum participant, Hua Qianfang, encouraging them to continue to write “works that carry positive energy.” The term “positive energy” is recent code for speech that toes the party line.

Both Zhou and Hua are young Internet writers who espouse strong nationalistic ideas, making them a digital addition to the ranks of China’s “art workers,” a term the party adopted in earnest after Mao’s Yan’an talk. On Oct. 16, Reference News, one of the major news outlets for party officials, devoted an entire page to three articles written by Zhou. They were titled “Broken Dreams in the USA,” “Fly, Chinese Dreams,” and “Their Dreams and Our Flags.”

At the tender age of 33, Zhou, who politely declined a Foreign Policy request for comment, has made his name writing a number of provocative blog posts that are often sharply critical of the West. One of his most famous, “Please Do Not Fail this Era,” describes the author’s change of heart as a young Chinese from one who deeply admired the West to one who believes in China’s government. “When I was young, I stupidly felt our country had systemic problems and had no free economy.” But Zhou wrote that he “awakened from this nightmare” after reading about how the younger brother of renowned novelist Wang Xiaobo was stabbed to death on an American street. In that same piece, Zhou argued that “no other country is unjustly accused more than today’s China,” and that it was ludicrous to accuse China of lacking freedom of speech when “80 percent of the voices” on the Chinese web are “diatribes against the government.” Zhou asked readers to believe in China’s “grand era,” in which contemporary Chinese are bearing witness to “oriental culture’s ultimate counterattack against Western hegemony.”

Zhou acts like many in his generation, what Chinese call the “post-80s,” who tend to embrace individual expression, rather than official statements. On the surface, Zhou fits in well — he’s a prolific blogger, and posted a selfie with Xi in the background during the Oct. 15 forum. Zhou is also active on social media — and since liberals and intellectuals often gather there too, Zhou often becomes a target. As Liang Yifei, an Internet commenter who writes on current affairs, has argued, Zhou serves as a symbol of how to succeed in modern China: “Do not act unconventionally by speaking against the government”; instead, “know how to examine the current situation and see the big picture.” In other words: Don’t try to beat the powers that be; join them.

In another notable entry from June 2014 called “Nine Knockout Blows in America’s Cold War Against China,” Zhou accuses the United States of trying to “destroy Chinese beliefs” and “opposing humanity.” The article says a “cold war” is taking place in China’s Internet space, one in which the U.S. government uses Chinese public intellectuals to spread negative information to undermine China’s “national confidence.”

None of these claims are backed by much in the way of fact. On Oct. 21, a (sometimes dubious) but extraordinarily well-known muckraker named Fang Shimin, better known by his nom de plume Fang Zhouzi, declared himself blocked from some Chinese social media sites just hours after sharing a point-by-point rebuttal of one of Zhou’s pieces.* Fang’s argument, since deleted but preserved on mirror site Freeweibo, says Zhou “dreamed his way” through the United States and made “ridiculous” arguments about subjects that “only someone who has actually lived in the United States” could reasonably opine on. Fang cites and then debunks several bizarre claims by Zhou, including that American service workers make between $3 and $5 per hour, that tipping is not voluntary, and that an individual fast-food meal costs between $20 and $40. Since Fang’s post, even stridently pro-government blogger Sima Nan — who once referred to the United States as “the enemy of all the people in the world” — has publicly written in support of Fang’s takedown of Zhou.

As a review of Zhou’s work on social media site Douban argues, the main themes of Zhou’s articles are about “obligations and responsibilities of the citizens and warm emotions toward the government,” while “all political opinions or criticisms toward the government are depicted as immoral and are conspiracies from the United States.” The review calls Zhou a “dangerous signal” because he’s “being accepted by the mainstream public and official media. It almost suggests that the government and society is heading to madness.” (The post has since been deleted, but is available on a mirror site.)

Many have called Zhou a “royal wumao,” the latter an online term for those paid to write opinions favorable of the government. Others compare him to Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao — writers and members of the “Gang of Four,” the radical Maoist group that bears some responsibility for the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, a disastrous period in which Chinese society turned on many of its authority figures and traditions. Those writers’ viewpoints “stunk,” wrote Lin Qi, a history professor at Harbin Normal University, “but you had to admit that their writing had the power to counter-argue with the truth.” By contrast, according to Lin, Zhou’s arguments “make no sense. It must be because the party is not able find a more talented person” to be a spokesman. Yao Bo, a noted web commenter, wrote that he “missed” the Cultural Revolution’s Yao and Zhang: “At least that was a debate” taking place “on the same intellectual level.”

To be sure, Zhou has his defenders, though their praise is often qualified. Not surprisingly, mainstream Chinese media has gone to bat for Zhou. The state-run Global Times argued in successive Oct. 16 and Oct. 17 editorials that “no matter how much the ‘liberal school’ ignores, disdains, or even abuses” people like Zhou, they “can’t remove his voice from public opinion.” On Oct. 18, the website of major party mouthpiece People’s Daily called for patience with Zhou. Readers can “question some of Zhou’s experiences,” the article read, but “we should forgive him” and encourage him to “correct his shortcomings moving forward.”

On social media, Zhou’s defenders took a similar tack. Zhang Yiwu, a professor of literature at prestigious Peking University, acknowledged that Zhou’s articles were flawed, but wrote that Zhou “understands that this country, in the end, has his back” and called Zhou part of China’s silent majority. Another Weibo commenter wrote that “the country might not be perfect, but I believe it’s going to be better and better. A flawed Zhou Xiaoping is just like an imperfect China.” And another acknowledged that “this country has all sorts of ugliness and darkness,” but none of that can obscure the “tremendous achievement” of Chinese modernization.

Whether he’s ready or not Zhou now finds himself famous. His blog has received over 10 million visits, he has over half a million Weibo followers, and his views are now endorsed by almost all state-owned media. Meanwhile, young critics are finding less space to survive. Li Chengpeng, once a prominent and eloquent social commentator on social media, effectively exited the Chinese public sphere earlier this year. For unspecified reasons almost certainly linked to his strident criticism of government policy, Li’s Weibo account was deleted in June; he is now studying at Harvard University as a visiting scholar.

*Correction, Oct. 22, 2014: The pen name of the well-known muckraker is Fang Zhouzi. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it was Fang Zhuozi.(Return to reading.)

Shujie Leng contributed research.

Ning Hui, or Lulu Hui, is a U.K.-based reporter on Chinese art and public policy. She tweets from @ninghuilulu

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.