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Chinese State Media: Online Critics “Incite Political Unrest”

While the Internet has become the site of almost constant political arguments in China, few articles have generated as much debate as a recent piece by blogger Wang Xiaoshi. On August 1, Xinhua News Agency, a state-run media outlet, posted Wang’s article, entitled “If China Experiences Unrest, It Will Be More Pathetic Than the USSR,” in a prominent position on its homepage. The article’s targeting of Weibo users reflected an intensification of online political debate.

From the beginning of the piece, Wang made it clear that Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform, was the enemy. He wrote:

Angels, mentors, and public intellectuals on Weibo create rumors and negative news about society every day, making it seem like China is on the verge of a collapse and facing “the end of days.” They defame the current socialist system and promote Western capitalist constitutionalism. While they are doing so, they continually instigate the public’s loathing of the incumbent government and revile Chinese for their servility. They have been inciting the public to sacrifice themselves to trigger social turmoil.

Describing how terrible Russia had become since its democratization, and how successful China has been because it “rejected the old path of the Soviet Union,” Wang stated his “disdain” for Chinese public intellectuals: “To those ‘Westernized flunkeys’ who have been yelling for the overthrow of the existing system and misleading the public on the Internet, you are leading China toward a catastrophic future in which China will be bullied, impoverished, weakened, disgraced, and forced to act as a dog for America.”

Originally posted on Wang Xiaoshi’s personal blog on July 15 and tweeted from his Weibo account, @王小石头儿, the article, deemed as emotional and extremely leftist by some users, did not garner a great deal of attention from the public until it was picked up by Xinhua and most Chinese portal sites—or rather, until these mainstream news websites were required to post it.

RFI reported that “the State Council Information Office ordered major commercial media websites to repost the article.” They also quoted Xie Wen, an online columnist, as saying that the piece was ordered to remain in its prominent placement for two days, longer even than important political documents.

Though the article was not to the taste of most Weibo users, Wang’s stance was supported by some. @刘沐涵, Editor of the government-affiliated Beijing Water Affairs News, agreed by saying that he “wanted peace rather than turmoil” and said it was best “not to be swayed by the so-called public intellectuals.” Similarly, user @无语凝噎a remarked, “The public intellectuals are seemingly trying to prove that a disordered China is a good thing. It is time to give them a lesson and make them realize that they are not offering criticism but instigating turmoil.”

But the majority of Chinese Weibo users expressed their disdain for the article and for Wang Xiaoshi. This time, it was the public intellectuals—the targets of Wang’s piece—that led the rebuttal.

Shortly after Wang’s article went viral, verified Weibo user @卫庄 acted as a “rumor buster” for the piece, saying that “90% of the statistics quoted in the article are rumor.” The thread was later “encrypted” by Sina Weibo administrators, rendered invisible to others besides the poster.

Some showed their “support” for Wang, in a sarcastic way. Verified user @謙女時評 listed the reasons why Russia is “pathetic” nowadays: “1. Citizens enjoy comprehensive and free medical insurance; 2. Education for children, elementary and secondary school students is free, with free lunch provided….and 6. Most pathetically, Russians have the right to vote.”

Others looked into the implications behind the piece’s unusual promotion. User @赵楚, verified as an “expert on military affairs and a columnist”, analyzed that “The Xinhua article has deeper implications: at the moment, the ruling party has completely lost control of the determination and implementation of its policies, or fallen into a state of chaos. Foreign policy and policies regarding intellectuals haven always been the two core concerns of the Party…Xinhua’s defaming of Russia suggests that the inner power struggle is still white-hot.”

But in the eyes of user @荣剑2011, such analysis was reading too much into a simple incident caused by “stupidity.” Many Internet users regarded the article as a joke. User @可爱的大眼睛图图 mocked, “Can the Russian people sue [Wang Xiaoshi] for libel or for spreading a rumor?”

Perhaps they will. The official Weibo account of The Voice of Russia retweeted Wang’s article, with a wondering comment: “Can even this kind of article be published on the homepage of Xinhua?” At the end of the comment, The Voice of Russia tagged both Xinhua’s Weibo account and that of an account known for verifying rumors. The thread was later deleted by Sina Weibo. A day later, The Voice of Russia Weibo account responded—perhaps jokingly—that it planned to translate the article into Russian and present it to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Wang’s piece serves as a window into an ongoing, if not escalating, struggle between Chinese leftists—or so-called Maoists—and rightists, known as economic and political liberals. The former group are seen as pro-government, while the later tends to be more critical and sometimes cynical. While this is not the first time that a pro-government media outlet has targeted the social media users for criticism, the article and its fallout further show that Chinese authorities are increasingly viewing Internet users as stakeholders with the ability to affect China’s future.