Tea Leaf Nation
This Irreverent New Chinese Website Is Dedicated to Mocking Jiang Zemin
It’s Chinese social media at its most satirical, and it’s not going to last long.
A new website dedicated to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin has just popped up on the Chinese web, and it’s a far cry from the state-sponsored hagiography of official websites. It’s the latest development in a new online subculture called “toad worship culture” — a reference to a much-censored 2014 Internet meme that compared the former head of state’s appearance to that of a giant inflatable toad. Beneath its superficially affectionate content — the tongue-in-cheek About page describes Jiang as a “very humorous and talented person” and states that “we love Chairman Jiang” — lies an irreverent critique of China’s head of state from 1993 to 2003, the obfuscating that has characterized official communication, and the rigidity of current President Xi Jinping’s governance. On China’s tightly controlled Internet, it almost goes without saying that the site is unlikely to last long.
Called Hahu — loosely translatable as “Do You Toad?” — the website mimics Zhihu, a widely used Chinese question-and-answer platform similar to Quora. Though it seems to have been live for only a few days, it is already a self-contained social network, complete with user profiles, friending, likes, upvoting, and even self-consciously cheeky profile verification — there’s a verified (but obviously fake) profile for Jiang Zemin, who replies to platform discussions with famous Jiang quotes used out of context (“How do I apply for verification?” “You must do it according to Hong Kong Basic Law”) to an effect similar to the satirical Twitter account KimKierkegaardashian. There’s also a (fake) verified profile for Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive of Hong Kong after the city returned to mainland Chinese oversight in 1997, after more than a century of British colonial rule. Tung was deeply unpopular in the semi-autonomous port city, due in part to his support for a new national security law which could have undermined the city’s traditional freedoms, and in 2005, he resigned after massive protests. Like the fake Jiang, the fake Tung responds to platform discussions with stereotypical comments intended to highlight his image as harsh and out of touch with the people. On one question thread, “What did you toad worshippers eat for lunch today?” the fake Tung replied, “No comment.”
Many users on the platform — out of at least 2,000 so far — have used either a photo of Jiang or of a toad as their profile pictures. The site’s About page includes a chart (pictured above) of Jiang’s physical resemblance to a toad. It’s not purely a site to poke fun at Jiang; it also seems to serve as community of like-minded web users. One discussion thread asked users how long they had been involved in “toad worship culture.” One user claimed to have first come across it in high school, after being handed a USB with a video of Jiang’s famous rant in 2000. In the video, the Chinese leader appeared alongside Tung in a press conference and berated Hong Kong reporters on camera for asking him “naïve” and “simple” questions. (The clip, never aired in mainland China but passed around surreptitiously, helped establish a lasting image of Jiang as combative, spontaneous, and almost comically blunt; it went viral once again during the 2014 Hong Kong student protests). Another user described first learning about “toad worship” in language arts class, when the teacher read a couple of Jiang’s quotes and then burst out laughing in front of the students. Several other users replied “No comment” to the question, invoking what seems to be the platform’s most common inside joke.
Such sass clearly crosses the line in China’s sensitive online environment; “toad fan” is a widely censored word on Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like microblogging platform. But online records indicate the website server is hosted in Japan, meaning Chinese censors cannot delete Hahu, though they can block mainland Chinese users from accessing it. The site seems to have flown below the radar so far, however. According to GreatFire.org, which tracks Chinese Internet censorship, the site can still be accessed from within mainland China. A web user by the online moniker Skygate created the site; Skygate did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
Jiang’s time in power soldered the foundation for the meteoric economic rise and staunch resistance to political reform that China under Xi maintains today. Though Jiang officially stepped down as president in 2003, he continues to wield significant influence behind the scenes. Rumors that Xi has attempted to undermine Jiang’s power by targeting his network in an ongoing anti-corruption crackdown have swirled online over the past few years. Also resurfacing online, often as part of “toad worship culture,” are photos that capture Jiang’s eccentricities and relatively flamboyant demeanor, at least when compared to his staid and carefully scripted successors. In one photo, Jiang floats in the Dead Sea wearing tight high-waisted swimpants and goggles; in another, he has whipped out a comb to smooth his hair while meeting with the king of Spain. These eccentric snapshots of the “Elder,” another online nickname for Jiang, have taken on a life of their own. Hahu continues this tradition; one user has created a profile called “Jiang Zemin’s Comb,” with the profile description, “A required item for the Elder’s state visit to Spain.”
The friendly mockery that characterizes toad worship culture reflects a frustration with Xi’s overly choreographed leadership style — Jiang is far more spontaneous by contrast — and with a general frustration towards party governance. It’s also a product of China’s highly constrained political environment, where direct criticism could lead to interrogation or even detention; obliquely criticizing a former leader is far safer than directly lambasting a current one. “‘Toad worship culture’ is not just a kind of worship, it’s also satire,” Chinese film critic Luo Jin, who goes by the online name Magasa, told the New York Times on Oct. 20. “It’s sarcasm, but it’s also a reflection of people’s nostalgia for the past and dissatisfaction” with the present.