By David BandurskiResponding earlier this week to Yunnan’s special investigation into the “elude the cat” case, we wrote at CMP that we could see a strange phenomenon emerging in China: the rise of virtual political participation as a proxy and foil for real political empowerment.
This trend — if we are right in calling it a trend — can be glimpsed partly in a confusion of public and private identities. As real political reform is unforeseeable, we wrote, political rights are off the table for China’s citizens. But the rights of China’s “netizens,” in contrast, are being hyped all over China’s media.
Very much along these lines, columnist Chang Ping (长平) urges readers in the latest edition of Southern Weekend to be mindful of the difference between officials and “Web friends” (网友), between “netizens” and citizens.
A great deal more can be read between the lines of Chang Ping’s editorial.
When he suggests that the role of healthy citizens should not be as “fans” of their leaders, for example, and then talks about Barack Obama‘s transformation into “Mr. President” on his inauguration day, one cannot help but think of the silly fan site the CCP has set up for its own president.


[ABOVE: People’s Daily Online’s special fan page for President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, set up in 2008.]

A complete translation of Chang’s editorial follows:

Are You a ‘Web friend’ or an Official?
By Chang Ping (长平)
Once they take up their government posts, they are no longer netizens or kindly elders, they are officials; and our identities should not be as “Web friends” or fans, but as citizens.
The “elude the cat” affair rolls on, but the character roles grow more and more chaotic. I don’t know now whose eyes have been blindfolded, who is cowering in their own lies, or for that matter whether anyone else will die as a result of this game. One of the most dazzling characters in this game is Wu Hao (伍皓), who is Yunnan’s deputy propaganda chief and at the same time a veteran netizen. But his wise and witty balancing of these two roles has left me somewhat lost.
A wrongful death occurred in a detention center in Puning County (普宁县), and the police explained to the public that a number of prison mates had played a game of hide-and-seek during which two men ran into one another, causing one to slam his head against a wall and incur fatal injuries. Netizens strongly doubted this explanation, and “elude the cat” (躲猫猫) rapidly become a popular online phrase. It was at this moment that Wu Hao stood up and organized an investigative team comprising mainly Web users, which then went to the detention center to carry out their own investigation in coordination with authorities. The investigation came to nothing, and Wu Hao and his team have once again come under scrutiny.
I believe that as a propaganda official Wu Hao’s objective was to come up with some fresh ways of doing things, and to draw more public attention to this affair — and these efforts deserve some affirmation. But the problems that have emerged in this process must also be considered carefully. And one of these issues is the lack of clarity in defining roles.
There is no question that this investigative team garnered such broad attention because it was organized by Yunnan’s provincial propaganda office. Wu Hao has said that “quickly exposing the facts, discovering the facts, investigating the facts and presenting the facts” was the responsibility of the propaganda office, and that’s why he stepped into the picture and came up with the idea of letting investigative team members go to the detention center.
At that time his role was as deputy head of the provincial propaganda office, and he had behind him a definite degree of official resources. Nevertheless, he was at the same time playing the role of netizen. His way of organizing the investigative team was through an entirely personal online act. He started by putting out information through his own QQ group, and then chose the director and deputy head [of the investigative team] according to the order of Web users signing up. Once the results of the investigation came out, he even said in his capacity as a Web user: “I too am unsatisfied.” Faced with public skepticism, he came clean by releasing his online chat record.
It’s not a problem for a person to take on separate roles . . . But you should not conduct business according to one role and then transfer this business onto another role. And you must not, more to the point, carry out official business in a private capacity. Strictly speaking, “Web friends” (网友) are friends. How can you organize a bunch of friends to enter a detention center in violation of legal procedures and investigate a public incident (公众事件) in your capacity as deputy head of the propaganda office?
Confusing public and private identities is not a special invention of Wu Hao’s — it is a time-honored tradition among our leaders, and can even be regarded as an effective way of doing work . . . And if you’re taking on a role as a close buddy everyone likes, then the role of “Web friend” is a new and popular one . . . Web users also enjoy it when high-level officials come out and chat as Web users . . .
But this now routine method disguises a serious problem. There is a passage in the Analects in which Zi Lu (子路) asks Confucius: “If you had an opportunity to govern, what is the first thing you would do?” Confucius answers him: “First you must have the right title and claim.” Then he said: “If you don’t have the right title and claim, then your words have no weight, and if your words have no weight then none of your affairs will be accomplished.” I remember Leung Man-to (梁文道) once wrote in an essay that after the American president came to office even his fast friends had to address him as “Mr. President.” This is because “the president is an institutional title,” [wrote Leung]. On the day of President Obama’s inauguration, an editorial in the Financial Times had a line that made a deep impression on me: “This is a great gathering not of fans but of citizens.”
Among our leaders there are many “netizens,” many icons and many kindly elders. But we must remember that once they take up their government posts, these are not their identities — they become officials. And our identities should not be as “Web friends” or fans or as junior kids [to kindly elders], but as citizens. With the right title our words carry weight (名正言顺) — in today’s world this principle [from the Analects remains an important one].

[Posted by David Bandurski, February 27, 2009, 1:15pm HK]

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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