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The big rumor mill

By Johnny Erling
Johnny Erling schreibt die Kolumne für die China.Table Professional Briefings

China’s leadership responds to the high infection risk of the Omicron variant with radical lockdowns of public life. As was once the case in Wuhan, one in four Chinese – more than 350 million people to date – were forced to isolate themselves and have been locked in for varying lengths of time in dozens of cities since the spring. Only thanks to the Internet have those affected so far been able to provide themselves with food and essential goods – albeit with varying degrees of success. At the same time, they are using the new virtual reality to openly voice their frustration.

One example: Superstitious Beijingers immediately thought of a bad omen on March 4, some even hoped for it. A day before the opening of the annual parliamentary session of the People’s Congress, news of a strange incident spread online. At the Taihedian (太和殿), the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Imperial Palace, once the seat of imperial power, the entrance gate had toppled. A whirlwind was said to have crushed the massive gateway. Shaky cell phone footage showed the huge wooden gate lying on the ground.

For some, it was a time-honored sign when China’s rulers had been stripped of their Mandate of Heaven and a change of dynasty was on the horizon. Party leader Xi Jinping, while not directly named in many online posts about the incident, is crudely mentioned by his nickname, “dumpling” (包子).

It was one of the many rumors (谣言) currently playing a cat and mouse game with censors on China’s Internet. Many bloggers use clever puns to make political jokes. It was the same with the fallen gate. Time and again, bloggers mock the People’s Congress deputies as compliant sloganeers who “make a lot of wind” (吹风) to please the Chinese leadership. As thousands of delegates gathered in Beijing on March 4, their collective huffing might have even brought down the mighty imperial palace portal.

Widespread frustration over lockdowns

It does not matter whether the gate really fell over. The video clips look faked; Beijing did not experience any abnormal weather phenomena that day. The news was probably fake news (假新闻). But it was the perfect opportunity to vent widespread frustration about current conditions in lockdown cities.

In China’s despot-ruled unfree society, clandestine political gossip once had its own term, the Xiaodao Xiaoxi (小道消息), which literally means “news that goes through the little way.” Scholars and merchants met in their courts and whispered about scandalous events in public life or at the imperial court. In 2010, the prestigious Chinese magazine History (看历史) published a special issue on how the Xiaodao Xiaoxi grew into explosive rumors and influenced political developments – both for feudal rulers and later for Mao’s Communists after the founding of the People’s Republic (小道消息:影响中国的谣言).

At home and in secret, merchants or scholars met in the 19th century for political gossip. Some small “Xiaodao Xiaoxi” (news over short distances) became big rumors that shook China again and again. The magazine “History” devoted a special issue to the phenomenon.

For instance, in the spring of 1891, people in eastern China’s Yangzhou city spread outrageous rumors that Christian missionaries were murdering Chinese infants to extract medicine or silver from their eyes. This led to a “holy war” against missionaries, foreigners and Chinese Christians. In the past, followers of Confucian teachings had already campaigned against them with pseudo-religious delusions. Pamphlets demonized the Jesuits around Matteo Ricci as alchemists who allegedly killed Chinese for this purpose.

Rumors threatened political stability

Rumors could destroy political stability when social contradictions in society were severe. Only open information could have defused them, the magazine concludes. This remains unchanged today, when rumors, fake news and jokes are an expression of a deep-seated resentment of conditions.

Beijing takes this so seriously that it responded not only with the usual harsh suppression and expansion of censorship. In addition to COVID-19, China had to be wary of the danger of a “secondary epidemic” spread via rumors. Party leader Xi already ordered the creation of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (中央网络安全和信息化委员会) on August 29, 2018, to correct (alleged) rumors (辟谣平台). According to their website, more than 30,000 rumors have been reported to date, of which 9,000 have been red-stamped “false report”.

The Party and the state decide what is fake news or what is a rumor. But increasingly absurd conspiracy theories (阴谋论) are emanating not from bloggers, but from Party agencies like the Foreign Ministry. There, Foreign Office spokesman Zhao Lijian made a name for himself as a “wolf warrior” after he blamed the US for the Covid outbreak and even accused Washington of being involved in alleged biochemical weapons manufacturing experiments in Ukraine. Zhao pushed it so far – despite his appeals to patriotism – that Chinese bloggers have made him a target of their own scorn.

On the Internet, such photos of protest actions have begun to pop up (perhaps they are photoshopped). They mock a particularly aggressive Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman known as a “wolf warrior” who, like his leader Xi, claims that China is the world’s paragon of pandemic control while Western countries are in chaos.

The web is filled with all forms of allusions to the party’s poor pandemic control. One blogger put a snail on a razor blade in a photo montage and wrote underneath: “It can’t go forward, it can’t go back. Standing still is not an option.”

Today, the Internet is the great rumor mill. Political jokes (duanzi) in words and pictures spread via chats, are shared via Twitter, which is actually forbidden. Jokes against China’s leadership and its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which only hurts itself: Below the snail it says: “It can’t go forward, it can’t go back, and it can’t stay where it is for long.”

Another blogger showed creativity by transforming the famous skyscraper silhouette of Pudong into a vegetable arrangement as his reproach to the authorities for failing to provide enough food for Shanghai’s citizens during the lockdown.

These political jokes are virtual slaps in the face to Xi, who constantly praises himself, the Party and his superior socialist system for how exemplary they have been in fighting the pandemic compared to the chaos in the West.

Duanzi jokes on the net. Desperate hopes of Shanghai’s 25 million citizens in the lockdown, where there is a shortage of everything. The high-tech skyline of Shanghai’s Pudong, hypermodern with skyscrapers, would now be preferred by many as a vegetable patch.

Bloggers are fighting back with jokes. In recent days, online collections of political jokes have appeared daily in Beijing under the heading “Beijing punchlines from yesterday.” (昨天北京人的段子). This is where, as long as Beijing’s residents can still go grocery shopping, survival lists for food are shared and what can be learned from the experience of the once hoity-toity Shanghainese who got blindsided by the lockdown: “Beijingers: buy freezers, so you’ll have a second fridge just in case.”

I witnessed similar virtual mass reactions like those currently happening in Shanghai and Beijing back in 2003. At the time, China’s leadership first denied the then predecessor disease SARS and then had it covered up, as it did in Wuhan in 2020. Only when there was no other way, Beijing mobilized the whole country to fight SARS.

At the time, the population was beside itself with anger on the Internet. The party initially tolerated their virtual criticism, used it as an outlet for emotions, and punished some higher officials. After a few months, everything was forgotten. China’s CP now turned the tables, declared itself the winner and settled accounts with activists.

Virtual mass anger and solidarity with the victims have erupted again and again over the past two years. Online outbursts of emotion “never last long. Nor do they lead to acts of resistance in China’s real world,” writes China expert James Palmer, editor of China Policy Brief: “Bloggers are taking a mild risk with their online postings. Real-world protests, however, have become even more dangerous under Xi’s rule.”

At the very least, the mass discontent on the Internet triggered by the lockdowns reveals the true mood of the people. If there were free elections and uncensored media in China, Xi would have a thing coming.

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