Tea Leaf Nation

A ‘System Bitch’ Dissents

Internet vitriol greets a Chinese state media employee who questions the party line.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

A debate on Hong Kong suffrage prompted a sharp-tongued columnist for a small Communist Party newspaper in central China to unleash a pro-democracy rant on the Twitter-like Weibo social media platform on Nov. 15, drawing a gale of criticism from a fiercely leftist subset of the Chinese web.   

While on one level, the incident amounted to little more than an ugly online spat, some are also seeing it as proof that nationalist voices are increasingly drowning out dissenters in the Chinese Internet sphere. Yang Guobin, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, told Foreign Policy that the way netizens piled on the columnist indicates that China is seeing "a new wave of cyber-nationalism that is more extreme than before."   

China’s net nannies quickly erased the heated back-and-forth over Hong Kong, and the columnist himself apparently wiped clean his own archive of Weibo posts, many of which had been highly critical of the Communist Party, Chairman Mao Zedong, and state media (not including his own employer). But screenshots of the young man’s posts are still floating around the Internet on bulletin boards and FreeWeibo.com, a site that archives censored Chinese social media posts. That material and coverage by Chinese journalists allow a reconstruction of this tiny web tempest.

According to a blog post on Beijing-based financial news magazine Caixin, the storm kicked off when Ning Fanggang, a doctor in the burn unit of a Beijing hospital, posted a message late on Nov. 15 declaring that there were many things that people in Hong Kong had no right to decide for themselves because they are under the rule of the central Chinese government. Ning’s view was far from radical; many mainland Chinese have reacted angrily to the pro-democracy protests that have been unsettling Hong Kong for almost two months. Ning, who posts under the username "Burn Superman A Bao," is something of a net celebrity, with more than 300,000 followers on Weibo. (Ning was in the news recently for badmouthing traditional Chinese medicine, which he considers a fraudulent practice.)

Shortly after "Burn Superman" posted his Hong Kong message, he got this fiery reply from Wang Yaofeng, a columnist with the Jiaxing Daily in eastern China’s Zhejiang province: "Your mother’s dog farts — this is what’s called regional autonomy. Do you get it or not? A student of medicine with no common knowledge of political science should fart less." Wang had only 300 followers on Weibo but his colorful language grabbed Ning’s attention. 

The Caixin blog reported that a group of ziganwu — slang for netizens with strong pro-government views who troll the Internet for dissenters — quickly scanned Wang’s Weibo archives and took screenshots of his many sharp critiques of the party and began posting them. On the popular Tianya bulletin board, some went after Wang’s credentials, showing that he wasn’t listed in an official database of Chinese journalists. (In fact, as a columnist, Wang would not need accreditation, though it is required for journalists who want to interview and to report.) They also directed outraged messages at Wang’s employer.  

A Beijing illustrator tweeting under the handle "SweetPotatoBear," whose posts were quoted by Caixin, blasted Wang, writing: "Wang Yaofeng, you think you can just delete your posts and everything is going to be fine?" He also had words for the Jiaxing Daily: "You support this type of tizhibiao" — literally, a "system bitch" — "who feeds at the party trough but smashes the party rice bowl — you must come out and explain this to the public!"  

Many were upset by Wang’s pro-democracy views, but they were apparently more disconcerted that someone who represents the state-run press could go so spectacularly rogue — and that he had been spouting similar views on Weibo since at least 2012. Archived posts from FreeWeibo show that in November 2012, he posted that the people of Jiaxing had a strong history of resistance and that they needed to rise up against the party, "face the enemy fire and advance, advance, advance." In June 2013, he wrote that following the Communist Party was a dead end. In July 2013, Wang criticized Mao’s "so-called Communist Party War of Resistance" against the Japanese in the 1940s, saying that Mao had little in the way of weapons and noting that a promising sabotage campaign led by Gen. Peng Dehuai had been disrupted by political infighting in the party. 

Min Jiang, an expert on the Chinese Internet and an associate professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told FP that it was "a bit uncommon" for a reporter or commentator inside the party-run media system to "make public remarks critical of the Party so openly, since they are de facto state media employees." Min said Wang was likely "an outlier, rather than the norm."

On Weibo, many were flabbergasted. A man from Guangzhou in southern China who blogs under the name "sweetPomelo" wrote, "That a party paper could have lost oversight and control of their own news commentator is really unbelievable! Exactly which party does your paper serve? To which party does your newspaper’s general secretary belong?" A reader in Tai’an in coastal Shandong province wrote that the first thing to do with people like Wang who want to smash the Communist Party and its people is to "smash their rice bowl," which is a euphemism for taking someone’s party job or livelihood. The post got 229 "thumbs up" from other users.

It didn’t take long for Wang’s employer to react. On Nov. 17, the Jiaxing Daily posted a widely shared note on its official Weibo account: "Netizens, thank you for your concern toward our paper. Our paper has already launched an investigation regarding Wang Yaofeng, and will handle (the case) according to regulations."   

Min told FP that the incident shows that the media landscape in China is "far more diverse than before, perhaps more so than most people in the West would imagine." She said that although self-censorship is still prevalent, Chinese media and the online sphere in fact have a broad spectrum of "ideological or political leanings."

Yet it’s clear the system tilts in favor of the nationalist voices. A reminder of this came in a chilling response to the Jiaxing Daily post by the design director of a technology company in north China’s Harbin. The man simply quoted article 105 of China’s criminal code, which outlines the punishment for inciting subversion, including up to five years in jail. These charges are frequently used to silence critics of the Communist Party. Though the Jiaxing Daily has not said whether Wang will face criminal prosecution, there is ample precedent for such action. In June 2013, activist Gu Yimin was arrested for posting a photo of the 1989 pro-democracy protestors in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the popular QQ chat site. But the bloody crackdown on those protesters has left a scar in Chinese history, and the party has virtually zero tolerance for unauthorized mentions of that event. In March, Gu was sentenced to 18 months in jail for inciting subversion. 

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o