School uniforms have been a hot topic in the Chinese media since last Thursday. On February 20, 2013, on a new satirical TV news talk show akin to the Colbert Report but with a pre-recorded laugh track instead of a live audience, host Jin Yan of Shanghai’s Dragon TV-produced Talk Tonight disclosed the result of a recent random audit of school uniform suppliers in Shanghai conducted by the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision. Of the twenty-two manufacturers selected, six of them failed to meet minimum quality standards. For the past three years, one of the six, the Ouxia Clothing Company, manufactured uniforms containing aromatic amines (which are used in dyes) believed to cause cancer, while continuing to fill orders for more than thirty schools in the Pudong district. In the 48 hours after the talk show aired, video clips of the school uniform episode generated more than 6 million tweets on China’s microblog site Sina Weibo. But the scandal itself is not why the video went viral. Most of the Weibo comments focused on one elementary schoolboy’s response to the Talk Tonight reporter’s questions. While it was his wiser-than-his-years answer that spawned the meme that went viral (more on this later), all of the interview responses in the Talk Tonight episode are noteworthy.
“Why is a company that has failed inspection three years in a row so popular, or should I say powerful, in the market?” host Jin Yan asked. Then he sent a reporter into the streets to investigate. Approaching 7 minutes in the video (6:46), a young woman answers: “The heart knows and the stomach understands,” or “xinzhi dumin”—a Chinese idiom that translates roughly to: “Needless to say, we all know what this is about.” Her implication is that everybody, including the reporter, knows that there must be some level of corruption involved without directly accusing the school system, which, in China, is essentially an extension of the government. By hinting at this tacit knowledge, the young woman on the street effectively turns the reporter into her accomplice. Further, by airing her response without asking the woman to explain what exactly it is that her heart and stomach understand, the TV program not only acknowledges her implication but also turns the audience into accomplices, too—a rare subversive moment on Chinese TV. Under state control, all TV stations are obligated to promote positive stories about the government. So positive, in fact, that there’s a saying in China: “After I die, I don’t want to go to heaven, I just want to live on CCTV domestic news.”
TV news programs in China tend to cover scandals in one of four ways, saying something akin to “there has been talk about a scandal, so we sent a reporter to investigate, and we found that:
- there was, in fact, no scandal, only rumors;
- the so-called scandal was a result of a misunderstanding and there is a perfect explanation;
- the scandal was exaggerated and the problem has already been solved thanks to our government;
- the situation was devastating, but our government is very responsive and has worked very hard to improve the situation. We should be eternally grateful to the leaders who have visited the victims.”
Thanks to Talk Tonight’s comedic bent, coverage of the “school uniform scandal” followed none of these stock routes. Instead, the reporter stopped trying to find out who was responsible for what, or what degree of damage the uniforms may have caused, and chose to air some of the funniest responses from the victims themselves—the students.
At 6:53 in the video the reporter grabs a schoolboy as he tries to flee the camera:
- “Do you like the look of your school uniform?”
- “It’s alright,” he says, leaning away from the reporter. Clearly somebody’s taught him that one should always avoid being interviewed.
- “What about the quality?”
- “Not bad,” he says, all shifty-eyed.
His was the most positive response to Talk Tonight’s school uniform investigation.
Due to a spate of recent scandals, it’s become increasingly hard for Chinese TV programs to focus on the positive, and many of their interview subjects reply sarcastically. The Talk Tonight reporter, for instance, soon found two other students who testified to the poor quality of their school uniform. At 7:14, one girl, when asked if she likes the style of her uniform, looks down at it and remarks: “So tacky it explodes!” then starts giggling.
Then comes the boy who got everyone’s attention on Weibo. First he complains that the uniforms are flimsy. Then, in a tone and with a rhythm and body language perfectly reminiscent of a party official giving instructions, he refers to himself using a cliché of Communist propaganda long employed by teachers to describe China’s children: “As a ‘flower of the motherland,’ I believe the reason that my test scores have never improved is exactly because of these school uniforms.” He nods to the camera, and, when he’s asked a second time if he is angry, he calmly confirms he is “outraged,” before turning around and walking away.
Riffing on the wisdom of this instant star, the following remarks posted to Weibo constitute the blooming of the “flower of the motherland” meme:
@莜米-琤: I think the reason that I’m still so short is exactly because of these school uniforms.
@大西瓜木有枝: I think the reason that I never had a girlfriend in high school is exactly because of these school uniforms. Outraged!
Thousands more commented on the kid’s intelligent and skillful satire:
@Julyjiaxingxd: This kid is so smart, not poisoned at all! lol
@无疆行: At such a young age, this kid has already grasped the essential logic of a government spokesperson. Very impressive, his parents should nurture his talent!
@桃花开菊花闭: I just spotted the future spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
@一根嫩草: This kid is a mirror of today’s government officials—just blame someone else when you mess things up, and truly believe the excuses you found for yourself! Kid, your life will be wasted if you don’t serve our government!
Some netizens chose to focus on Talk Tonight’s reporting:
@幸福帅哥妈妈: A reporter from CCTV would instead be chasing students to ask them: “Are you happy?”
Others took the young satirist’s remarks more seriously:
@CHEN-GE在广州: He could totally be speaking the truth! Toxic chemicals can damage a child’s neural systems and make him slow to learn.
@silentsand: Toxic school uniforms = irresponsible manufacturers = checks and balances are not working = the society does not follow law and order = we have the rule of people rather than the rule of law. Why should a student study hard in a society that runs on the rule of people? All he needs is a powerful dad and his connections. That’s why his scores have not improved.
Others demand further investigation:
@NB閃閃地活在當下: This is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure bigger scandals will surface if you dig deeper! I’m a student, I know it best...
@旭1日1东9升: Is it just the school uniforms that are toxic? These uniforms are very expensive; who is setting the price? How is the high profit margin distributed? I’m sure somewhere down the chain there is corruption. Who is doing the investigation?
In the end, the meme spawned plenty of self-reflection on netizens’ own living conditions:
@小市民_Ida: Poisonous oil, poisonous milk, poisonous air, poisonous water, poisonous dumplings, poisonous school uniforms...
@香槟经年: a mini tragicomedy......