The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have come and gone with neither a bang, nor even a whisper. Whatever officials hoped to gain from the spectacle of Chinese athletes winning gold on snow and ice didn’t manifest. Even in my more nationalistic we chat groups, I saw few posts about the Olympics even during the games, and now that they’re over, no one has mentioned them. Instead, three topics obsess people across my we chat groups–the upsurge of Covid in Shenzhen, the Xuzhou mother, and the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Moreover, as the above cartoon illustrates, how these issues are stitched together reveals social fault lines.
The cartoon reads: (upper frame) Bold opinions. Throughout the Russian Ukrainian war, Ukraine has overestimated its strength; a small, poor country has no diplomatic means. In a word: attack! (lower frame) Don’t discuss national affairs. I don’t know, I don’t care, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t talk about politics.
The use of the character 打! in the upper frame is particularly revealing. 打 means to fight, but also to beat as a punishment. There is an acceptance, even shadenfreude 幸灾乐祸 about the weak being beaten for being weak. Then, in the lower frame, when the man who advocated Russia beating Ukraine (because they are small and because they are poor) is shown a picture of the Xuzhou mother, he turns away and refuses to engage the problem. What’s more, it’s possible to imagine him in another context (in Xuzhou, for example) agreeing with the decision to chain up a purchased “wife” because what else is to be done with a crazy woman?
The way these issues are and are not being talked about in We Chat circles and on weibo forums run alongside discussions of the Covid upsurge in Hong Kong and its relation to the current “war time situation” management of Covid in Shenzhen. Those who believe that beating Ukraine is understandable, are also calling for strong punishments against those who brought Covid in from Hong Kong. In contrast, those who oppose Russia’s actions are still trying to call attention to the Xuzhou situation, and don’t (at least online) blame Hong Kong for the lockdowns and empty markets in Shenzhen.
Scary times, indeed. The escalation of Covid management overlaps with the refusal to publicly deal with egregious human-trafficking conflates with a desire to beat the unruly into submission. Politics without people, but oh so many bodies left behind. Below, are two stills from a video circulating on We Chat:
The fact that the netizens have this proclivity to compare the incomparable (“Ukraine’s fallen; Shenzhen’s fallen”) is quite telling, perhaps even uniquely PRC:
Those who grew up in a society that prioritises”stability” over everything else often thrill to see (or feel) ocassional chaos. The idea that the turbulent world exists outside of Eileen Chang’s novels excites them. Hence the dramatic word-use “fallen”, “occupied”, etc.
Another phenomenon is that the PRC netizens tend to make light of a serious situation. The reason may be this is the only way for the topics to be discussed online at all. You can laugh you can joke, but you can’t be serious or angry. At first this might be just the clever tricks of the netizens to evade censorship, but what I worry about is that this survival strategy has cringed into the DNA of the internet culture. It has become the norm of all discussion, private or public. Social issues, however urgent or even horrid, suddenly become light-hearted jokable matters. Hence the comparison of pre-80s Chinese refugees and Hong Kongers evading quarantine; comparison of Xuzhou woman and Eileen Gu.
Comparing domestic problems with turmoils overseas is also a way for some to feel that “see, we are a normal country too. we have problems other countries also have.” (many ‘little pinks’ are quite insecure of the legitimacy of the system, deep down. My observation…) Hence the inappropriate comparaison of treatment of Uighurs and American racial inequality; HK protest and Jan 6th … Many of these pairs were propagated by officials or mouthpieces of the highest level.
Thanks for sharing. Very interesting, but not surprising. Even before the declassification, it was widely known that Deng blatantly threatened to “seize Hong Kong in a day.” Naturally Maggie wasn’t too pleased.
“Stability” and “sovereignty” means different things in China than in liberal countries. In CCP’s dictionary, “stability” means to control by silencing dissents, and sovereignty means to control by erasing differences. Ultimately, both serve to consolidate the party’s unchallenged position in the unitary state system.
The gap in the understanding of these political terms explains why China and democracies frequently misunderstand each other on a diplomatic level or a people-to-people level, as they so often communucate on different wave lengths. A good example is China’s propaganda works well domestically but becomes a laughing stock when it attempts to go global. “Stability” and “sovereignty” simply don’t mean the same thing or carry the same weight for the global audience.
Hi Sice, thank you for working definitions of stability and sovereignty, both useful and immediately applicable. What I thought was interesting about Zhao Ziyang’s warning was the acknowledgment that all values are not equal. Moreover, his understanding that there was one value for 百姓 and one for the Party.
Hi Mary Ann. Thank you for pointing that out. It is indeed interesting. I wonder if high school students nowadays still need to learn this propaganda line by heart in their Politics class, “sovereignty is above human right; without sovereignty there will be no human right; the greatest human right is the right to life.” I think the communists always have a strong sense of hierarchy of values. The emphasis on sovereignty may be tied to the CCP’s historical narrative how they came about (anti-colonialism patriotism post-May 4th Movement) and assumed power (war and the exclusion of the foreign influence.) Let me know if you happen to spot some revealing lines in the latest textbook. : )
Will check it out.