CDT Weekly, May 1-7

“Did Hu Xijin change, or did the times?” Disguised bears; rockets and apologies; population decline and passive resistance

Welcome to CDT’s weekly email newsletter. With these updates, we aim to provide an overview of new content across CDT’s English and Chinese sites, as well as the bilingual China Digital Space wiki, and related content elsewhere, and also to wish a happy Mother’s Day to our most appreciative reader, Robin Beach.

Today’s entry on CDT’s Sensitive Words calendar is 噗噗熊 Pūpū Xióng, or “Puffy Bear,” a name coined in an unsuccessful effort to avoid censorship while posting about a child’s recent assault on an employee in a Winnie the Pooh suit at Shanghai Disney. Pooh has been used to poke fun at Xi Jinping since the latter’s visit to the U.S. in 2013.

Yesterday’s calendar entry, 向印度人民道歉 Xiàng Yìndù rénmín dàoqiàn or “An Apology to the People of India,” was the title of a post that was deleted from WeChat last weekend, but archived at CDT Chinese and translated at CDT English. The essay was a response to a Weibo post, itself also later deleted, by the official account of the CCP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (CPLAC), mocking the ongoing COVID-19 catastrophe in India by juxtaposing images of a Chinese rocket launching a new space station module and improvised funeral pyres in New Delhi with the caption “ignition in China vs. ignition in India, #400ThousandNewCasesIn1DayInIndia#.” The apology post attacked the comparison as “grossly inappropriate,” arguing that “as India is being ravaged by COVID, the most basic sympathy for those suffering as we did is fundamentally human—it has nothing to do with patriotism, it is basic decency. The pandemic isn’t a competition.” Despite framing its opposition to the Weibo post in terms of its contrast with Xi Jinping’s expressions of support to fellow members of the human “community of common destiny,” the essay was deleted. This may have been a reflexive early move: later, similar posts were left online. Indeed, condemnation of the Weibo post’s callousness, particularly coming from an official account, became widespread, with even the famously provocative Global Times editor Hu Xijin among its critics.

Though the backlash against the original post was widespread, it was by no means universal. The post itself received at least 73,000 “likes” before its deletion. Hu Xijin first tangled with Fudan professor Shen Yi, who had praised the CPLAC post, and many other users jumped into the fray on either side. Hu later came to the rather heavily qualified defense of Global Times reporter Chen Qingqing after she was assailed as unpatriotic for describing CPLAC’s comparison on Twitter as “completely ridiculous.” Hu argued that although she had “obviously” erred on this occasion, and her tweet had been “too simplistic and too reckless,” allowances should be made as she is only in her early thirties, and had displayed great courage as one of the most active mainland reporters in Hong Kong during the 2019 protests. Even this opened him up to further nationalist attack, as documented at CDT Chinese. (An English post is on the way.) The CDT Chinese post highlights a post by Weibo user @Leisilin: “One interesting observation is that ten years ago, people called Hu Xijin China’s Number One ‘Fifty Center,’ and he represented radical nationalism. But in the last couple of years, it seems that more and more people see him as ‘evasive,’ a mere ‘public intellectual,’ or even a ‘traitor.’ The question is, is it Hu Xijin that’s changed, or the times? Who knows.”

This week’s CDT Chinese roundup linked the CPLAC post to two other recent examples of “Wolf Warrior” public messaging. A Twitter post by notoriously lupine Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian inserted scenes of nuclear waste disposal into a parody of Hokusai’s famous engraving The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, protesting Japan’s announcement of plans to release radioactive wastewater from the Fukushima power plant into the Pacific. (Censorship related to the news was outlined in the April 10-23 installment of this newsletter.) Days later, China’s embassy in Japan tweeted an old cartoon satirizing the death toll of America’s successive foreign interventions. CDT Chinese editors commented in their weekly roundup on Monday that “many online Chinese are increasingly concerned and indignant about ‘Wolf Warrior’ external propaganda which ‘is all posture and no bottom line.’ In the face of strong and widespread criticism and protest, two of these three examples were eventually deleted, but they represent an extremely dangerous trend: a great power rejecting the outside world, rejecting goodness, and choosing instead to turn its back and walk away.”

The rocket depicted in the CPLAC post is now in an uncontrolled decaying orbit and is expected to fall to earth within the next few days, anywhere between the latitudes of New York and New Zealand. Both China and India currently have probes orbiting Mars. 

Back on Earth, China found itself on the receiving end of aggressive Twitter diplomacy this week when the Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teddy Locsin Jr. urged it to “how politely can I put it? Let me see… O…GET THE FUCK OUT” of the South China Sea. Locsin went on to take credit for inspiring China’s own “Wolf Warriors,” saying “they’re my pupils in aggressive diplomacy; they must have watched me in action in the UN.” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged “relevant people in the Philippines” to “comply with basic etiquette,” while a spokesperson for Locsin’s own national leader issued a rebuke that “only the President can cuss.”

Another of this week’s hotspots is the still impending release of population figures from China’s seventh national census. Last week’s newsletter noted an official denial of The Financial Times’ reporting that the census would show a decline in China’s population for the first time since the Great Leap Forward, years sooner than expected. CDT Chinese noted that the FT report and related discussions were censored on Weibo and elsewhere, including the keyword combination 人口+首次減少 rénkǒu + shǒucì jiǎnshǎo, or “population + first decline,” which became Tuesday’s calendar entry. Other sensitive terms focused on the demographic turning-point’s negative effects: "population + crisis," "population + recession," "population + decline," and so on. (A discussion at ChinaFile this week examined possible responses to these challenges.) A third category expressed suspicion that the numbers would be manipulated to paper over these problems: "population + fabricate," "census + fabricate," "seventh census + fabricate," etc. 

CDT Chinese editors wrote that whatever the truth behind this year’s figures, “China’s population crisis has already quietly arrived, with birth rates, the gender ratio, and the number of newborns all bearing warning signs, and serious social crises following behind them.” Some, they also noted, are even welcoming this. A now-deleted Zhihu question, “Why do some people view declining birth rates positively?” attracted despairing, angry, or nihilistic responses, including celebration of “the wordless protest of draft animals.” These replies, our editors commented, exemplify the characteristic “passive resistance” of China’s young “chives,” who “live to be cut down”—a generation, they suggest, simply too exhausted to reproduce.

The natalist policies and messages now coming to the fore as the authorities try to mitigate the ongoing demographic shift are, of course, a bleak contrast with the decades of often harsh family planning measures that fueled it. May 1 was the 30th anniversary of one infamously extreme case of the latter: the “Hundred Childless Days” in Shandong’s Guan County in 1991, a goal enforced through public shaming, violently forced abortion, and alleged infanticide. CDT translated three purported accounts of the campaign from one official and two other locals, describing its inception, grisly execution, and lingering shadow.

Other key dates this week included International Workers’ Day on May 1—noted on the Sensitive Words calendar with a recollection of the 2018 佳士工人 Jiāshì gōngrénJasic worker protests—and World Press Freedom Day on May 3. CDT’s John Chan marked the latter by compiling a timeline of recent developments at Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK. The organization has a history of sometimes aggressive independence, including its coverage of the 2019 protest movement. Its subsequent reining-in accelerated sharply in February following the publication of a 154-page government report alleging “serious inadequacies” and “deficiencies in the editorial management mechanism.” Chan describes the subsequent barrage of dismissals, cancelations, deletions, and new supervisory measures as “a case study in the muzzling of once venerated institutions in post-National Security Law Hong Kong.” The once proudly independent judiciary also appears well on the way to being brought to heel: on Thursday, three Hong Kongers received lengthy prison sentences for rioting during the 2019 protests, “even though the judge acknowledged there was no evidence they had any actual role in the riot.”