An Outbreak of Unapproved Fun Trashes Chinese Propagandist Hu Xijin
Just-banned app Clubhouse offered a rare chance to mess around freely online.
When Chinese people take to a new online medium, Western journalists and analysts rush to infer the yearnings of imprisoned souls longing to break free. But it is a truth too seldom acknowledged in foreign coverage of China that the internet is for screwing around—and that a major attraction of new, unrestricted platforms is that they provide new venues for fun.
The unofficial motto of the Chinese government is: “No surprises.” Humor of the officially approved variety, like the woeful skits that will air this Friday as part of CCTV’s annual Lunar New Year gala, is invariably safe, predictable, and inoffensive. Actual fun must be sought elsewhere—as on Monday, when an audience of 4,000 people gathered on the freshly banned app Clubhouse for a thorough Mandarin-language curb-stomping of one of the government’s most reviled mouthpieces, Global Times editor and Xinjiang atrocity-denier Hu Xijin. (Thanks to the ban, they were either overseas or using illegal VPNs to access the chatroom.)
Hu, the editor of China’s most famous nationalist tabloid—which is owned by the Communist Party, through the more staid People’s Daily—became infamous among liberally minded Chinese a decade ago for his tendency to get into online fights. Think of a Rush Limbaugh or Tucker Carlson, but with short sleeves and a highly suspect haircut. In more open times, flame wars between Hu and prominent liberals like Ai Weiwei were a form of public entertainment. Now, with his opponents gone or shut out of public discourse, Hu’s belligerent videos and social media posts are mostly just him kicking at targets who can’t fight back.
All of this makes Hu an ideal object of fun. He’s a representative of power, but he’s not actually powerful enough himself to make too much trouble for people who still live, or have families, back in the mainland. He’s gotten into enough fights to come off as a real person, not just a faceless representative of The Man. (His doglike eagerness to serve his masters has earned him the nickname “Frisbee,” for his willingness to catch whatever the government throws at him.) And he’s made himself an enthusiastic proponent of the Chinese government’s increasingly shouty triumphalism and illiberalism—“telling China’s story well,” as Xi Jinping put it in his report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017. Small wonder if liberal Chinese people chafe at having their story told by such a man.
The format of the chatroom, “Hú Xījìn hòuyuán dàhuì” (“Hu Xijin Has A Posse”) parodied one of the regular rhetorical necessities of life under autocracy, extravagant praise for the boss or the visiting cadre. The practice—not to say compulsion—is memorably satirized in Wang Shuo’s 1989 novella Please Don’t Call Me Human in which local Beijing residents greet a visiting dignitary with an insane stream-of-consciousness speech that begins: “Esteemed, renowned, revered, and dearly beloved guide, trailblazer, architect, shining beacon, blazing firebrand, demon-dispelling mirror, dog-battering cudgel, daddy, mommy, gramma, grampa, paterfamilias, primal progenitor, primate ancestor, Supreme Sage on High, Jade Emperor, Hearer of the World’s Cries, and Generalissimo” and continues for several pages.
On Clubhouse, speakers brimming with quasi-mandatory “positive energy” took turns at the mic to praise Hu’s raw sexual magnetism—“the masculine energy that exudes from every pore,” as one user put it—and the tumescence of his patriotism. (Several suggested that the Ministry of Education use Hu as a model for its recently announced plan to promote “manliness education” in schools.) More than a few claimed to be Hu’s bastard children, or the bearers of same. One woman explained that Hu was not only patriotic, but generous, because, “He sends the biggest tips whenever I’m on cam.”
Men in the room credited Hu’s political and spiritual guidance with regrowing their hair, curing their erectile dysfunction where Viagra had failed, and inspiring nocturnal emissions. (A young woman concurred: “I’m a cisgender woman, and every night my you-know-what turns inside-out to become a wiener just so that I can have wet dreams about [Hu]…Editor Hu’s dick is the Dick of the State. The harder it gets, the more people our country can dick down.”) Others testified that Hu’s amorous attentions were not for women alone, prompting a rare moment of tension when one speaker stepped in to chide the truly staggering number of men who had recounted their dalliances with Hu. Identifying himself as a simple Chinese farmer living in the United States, the man said that Hu’s journalism and social media postings had been precious sources of connection to his native land:
“So it doesn’t sit right with me when I hear people here talking about sex changes, or claiming that we’re all Chairman Hu’s bastards, or saying that Hu Xijin has ‘a pretty mouth,’” he said. “And worst of all are the people saying Hu Xijin is ‘a gay’ and ‘a bottom.’ [At this point, the speaker dropped into gay Chinese slang] How do you know that Hu Xijin is ‘gay and a total bottom?’ What proof do you have that Hu Xijin is ‘a thirsty bottom?’ How do you know he isn’t versatile? In conclusion, please stop saying that Hu Xijin is ‘a hungry power bottom.’”
None of this will bother Hu in the slightest, of course: Like the more nobly minded Clubhouse rooms that have been reported on elsewhere, “Hu Xijin Has A Posse” will have all the impact of a booger flicked at an oncoming tank. But the Party hates nothing more than a party, and unauthorized fun is still freedom of a sort.
The name of the chatroom attracted a few genuine nationalists. One confused soul, jumping his place in the moderation queue, turned on his mic and asked if the others in the room were in fact not the “hardcore Hu fans” (húfěn) that they proclaimed themselves to be.
“This is exactly what’s wrong with China today,” a moderator replied. “You can’t even sing hosannas to a cadre without someone accusing you of satire.”
Brendan O'Kane is a translator of Chinese literature.