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Chairman Rabbit vs Hu Xijin: Divided Nationalists on Weibo

Hu’s personal opinions should not be mistaken for China’s official stance nor guide Chinese online public opinion, Chairman Rabbit argues.

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Political commentator Hu Xijin was an influential online voice in the days surrounding Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Chinese blogging account Chairman Rabbit lashed out against Hu, saying he misled public opinion at a time when his statements should have matched the official stance.

On August 3rd, a day after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Chinese blogger Chairman Rabbit (兔主席) posted a long piece of text on Weibo rebuking political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) for his overdosed hawkish claims leading up to Pelosi’s controversial visit.

Following the post by Chairman Rabbit, grandson of a former CCP leader, Chinese social media saw many discussions and a wave of criticism against Hu and his overaggressive position.

In his since-deleted post, Chairman Rabbit demanded stricter regulation of Hu’s public statements due to his perceived ties with the Chinese government.

Hu Xijin is a Chinese journalist and the former editor-in-chief and party secretary of Global Times, a Chinese and English-language media outlet under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper.

Although he retired from his job, Hu is still a very active commentator on political affairs via social media. With nearly 25 million fans on Weibo and over half a million followers on Twitter, his posts and statements often go trending and influence public opinions.

Chairman Rabbit argued that Hu has built a credible reputation in his field, both within China and abroad, where he is generally perceived as having certain authority to speak about China’s political affairs – with some foreign media almost regarding him as some sort of spokesman for the Chinese government. Meanwhile, according to Chairman Rabbit, Hu uses this credibility to promote his own personal views.

“He was too loud. It would make the people think that [China’s] actions are not enough, bringing about disappointment and distrust. This is damaging to the morale of the people and also to the credibility of the government,” Chairman Rabbit wrote.

 

Two Political Commentators “Protecting China’s National Interests”

 

Chairman Rabbit is the alias of Ren Yi (任意), a Harvard-educated Chinese blogger who currently has over 1.8 million followers on Weibo, where he calls himself a ‘history blogger.’ He is also the grandson of former Chinese politician Ren Zhongyi (任仲夷), who was a leader in China’s reform period since the late 1970s. ‘Chairman Rabbit’ is known as a nationalist, conservative political commentator who often comments on US-related issues and current affairs (for more on his background, check out this article by Tianyi Xu).

The Chinese blogger’s post came after a week in which Hu Xijin recurringly went trending for his strong condemnation of a potential visit to Taiwan by U.S. House Speaker Pelosi.

Hu suggested that a Taiwan visit by Pelosi would be a clear provocation of China, giving the PLA “good reason” for “waging a war.” One of Hu’s tweets, in which he voiced the view that U.S. military planes escorting Pelosi to Taiwan could potentially be shot down, was deleted by Twitter on July 30. Afterward, Hu reiterated his views on Weibo and criticized Western censorship.

Hu Xijin tweet which was deleted by Twitter on July 30.

Chairman Rabbit wrote about Hu:

“(..) as we can see time and again, he lacks judgment and accurate sources of information on some major issues (..), and he represents only his personal views, which may be misdirected. If his views were perceived as being purely personal, they would not receive nearly as much attention – his “authority figure” status is the key to everything, and he is perceived as having a special channel to represent authorities.”

In the post, Chairman Rabbit accuses Hu of using his status to promote his own views and to influence the public debate and the international view of China to gain clout.

Hu Xijin responded to the post himself on his Weibo account, suggesting he felt betrayed and “deeply puzzled” to be attacked by someone he considered a “friend who worked together [with me] to defend China’s national interests,” writing: “I originally saw them as allies, yet right in the heat of the moment, I was surprised to find that that they suddenly turned their guns to aim it at me.”

In the same post, Hu still defended his own words, arguing that despite his “limited power” he still does what he can to “protect China’s national interests.”

 

“Frisbee Hu”

 

The Chairman Rabbit vs Hu Xijin dispute caught the attention of Chinese netizens, including the liberals and conservatives on Chinese social media.

With his muscle-flexing language, Hu seemingly regained popularity amongst die-hard nationalists on Weibo after long being suspected of being a “gongzhi” (公知), a derogatory use of the term “public intellectual.” The latest controversy shows that the interests of online nationalists do not always align with the official government stances.

It also shows a division between populist nationalists and the more elite or ‘establishment’ nationalists on Chinese social media. The former operate independently and are willing to pressure the government toward a more hostile foreign policy, while the latter follow the decisions of the government and respond to them.

Hu is known for commenting on political issues and tuning into official narratives, which even led to him being nicknamed “Frisbee Hu” (胡叼盘), suggesting he can catch the ‘frisbees’ thrown by the Communist Party like a dog catches his toy.

However, it seems he did not catch their ‘frisbee’ this time. For the CCP, it arguably would be not a wise choice to engage in any kind of military conflict at this time, knowing the unpredictable societal changes it may bring to its regime, especially ahead of Xi Jinping’s bid for a third term in office at the 20th party congress later this year.

Authorities did emphasize that China would not “idly sit by” if Pelosi would visit Taiwan. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian warned the U.S. on August 1st that if the U.S. House speaker would visit Taipei, “the Chinese side will respond resolutely and take strong countermeasures to defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

But the aggressiveness of Hu Xijin’s posts perhaps went beyond what the authorities had in mind. According to Chairman Rabbit, Hu “influenced public opinion, and China’s international image as well. What he got in the end was traffic for his own account.”

 

Instruments to Govern the Public Sphere

 

On social media, Hu still received a lot of support while others agreed with Chairman Rabbit that Hu was chasing clout and that his words have consequences. Although that is not necessarily bad – as his influence can mobilize and channel public rage in a time of strict Covid measures and a declining economy, – it can also backfire and reflect negatively on the government when they fail to meet the public’s expectations.

Chairman Rabbit suggests that it might be better for Hu to put a disclaimer and clarification at the top of any statement to make it clear that his views are personal and do not represent the official view.

This is not the first time Hu gets caught up in a conflict between Chinese populist and establishment nationalists. In 2021, Hu had a public spat with Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University. When Shen Yi defended a controversial post by the CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission which put an image of the Chinese rocket launch besides that of a mass cremation in India, Hu argued that official accounts should not ridicule India’s Covid deaths but “express sympathy for India, and place Chinese society firmly on the moral high ground” (read here).

At that time, however, Hu sided with the so-called ‘establishment nationalists’ advocating for more decent public expressions from an official government account at a time when their neighboring country was mourning the victims of their Covid outbreak.

Disputes such as ‘Hu vs Shen’ and ‘Hu vs Chairman Rabbit’ could be seen as instruments to govern the public sphere, shifting the focus of attention amid online storms. The ‘Hu vs Shen’ public spat shifted the subject from whether it is moral to ridicule a neighboring country for its tragedy to whether it is good for an official government account to ridicule a neighboring country for its tragedy.

Similarly, the ‘Hu vs. Chairman Rabbit’ dispute shifted the subject from whether it is moral to wage a war over Pelosi’s visit to whether it would be in China’s best national interests to wage a war and to the influence of online public commentators within this matter.

Chairman Rabbit posted a second lengthy post regarding the dispute on August 4th, in which he again reiterated his stance that Hu Xijin’s tone on social media did not match the official stance, and that Hu, with limited diplomatic and military knowledge, miscalculated his response to the Pelosi issue and guided public opinion in the wrong direction.

The dispute between the two influential commentators triggered discussions, with some bloggers wondering when the next round of bickering is going to take place. In doing so, Chairman Rabbit has also been instrumental in channeling nationalist sentiments and creating some calm after the online storm following Pelosi’s visit.

“I think the Propaganda Department needs take responsibility, as they tacitly accepted Hu Xijin’s influence on public opinion. They can’t later shift all the blame to a person who’s already retired,” one popular comment said: “Those who are responsible should take responsibility! Our propaganda has always seen some problems, both internally as well as externally.”

Other commenters think Hu Xijin is getting too much credit for being held responsible for shifting public opinion. “My friends don’t even know who Hu Xijin is, yet they had also shifted in the ‘prepare for war’ direction,” one Weibo user writes, with another person adding: “He’s just saying out loud what I was thinking already. If everyone said it, it might be blocked, but he can speak for us.”

“Hindsight is 20/20,” others say: “And we might need hawkish expressions such as those published by Hu. I still support him.”

By Xiuyu Lian and Manya Koetse

 

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About Lipstick King’s Comeback and His ‘Mysterious’ Disappearance

After Li Jiaqi’s return to livestreaming, the ‘tank cake incident’ has become the elephant in the room on social media.

Manya Koetse

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Earlier this week, the return of China’s famous livestreamer Li Jiaqi, also known as the ‘Lipstick King’, became a hot topic on Chinese social media where his three-month ‘disappearance’ from the social commerce scene triggered online discussions.

He is known as Austin Li, Lipstick King, or Lipstick Brother, but most of all he is known as one of China’s most successful e-commerce livestreaming hosts.

After being offline for over 100 days, Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) finally came back and did a livestreaming session on September 20th, attracting over 60 million viewers and selling over $17 million in products.

The 30-year-old beauty influencer, a former L’Oreal beauty consultant, rose to fame in 2017 after he became a successful livestreamer focusing on lipstick and other beauty products.

Li broke several records during his live streaming career. In 2018, he broke the Guinness World Record for “the most lipstick applications in 30 seconds.” He once sold 15000 lipsticks in 5 minutes, and also managed to apply 380 different lipsticks in another seven-hour live stream session. Li made international headlines in 2021 when he sold $1.9 billion in goods during a 12-hour-long promotion livestream for Alibaba’s shopping festival.

But during a Taobao livestream on June 3rd of this year, something peculiar happened. After Li Jiaqi and his co-host introduced an interestingly shaped chocolate cake – which seemed to resemble a tank, – a male assistant in the back mentioned something about the sound of shooting coming from a tank (“坦克突突”).

Although Li Jiaqi and the others laughed about the comment, Li also seemed a bit unsure and the woman next to him then said: “Stay tuned for 23:00 to see if Li Jiaqi and I will still be in this position.”

The session then suddenly stopped, and at 23:38 that night Li wrote on Weibo that the channel was experiencing some “technical problems.”

But those “technical problems” lasted, and Li did not come back. His June 3rd post about the technical problems would be the last one on his Weibo account for the months to come.

The ‘cake tank incident’ (坦克蛋糕事件) occurred on the night before June 4, the 33rd anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen student demonstrations. The iconic image of the so-called ‘tank man‘ blocking the tanks at Tiananmen has become world famous and is censored on China’s internet. The control of information flows is especially strict before and on June 4, making Li’s ‘tank cake incident’ all the more controversial.

But no official media nor the official Li Jiaqi accounts acknowledged the tank cake incident, and his absence remained unexplained. Meanwhile, there was a silent acknowledgment among netizens that the reason Li was not coming online anymore was related to the ‘tank cake incident.’

During Li’s long hiatus, fans flocked to his Weibo page where they left thousands of messages.

“I’m afraid people have been plotting against you,” many commenters wrote, suggesting that the cake was deliberately introduced by someone else during the livestream as a way to commemorate June 4.

Many fans also expressed their appreciation of Li, saying how watching his streams helped them cope with depression or cheered them up during hard times. “What would we do without you?” some wrote. Even after 80 days without Li Jiaqi’s livestreams, people still commented: “I am waiting for you every day.”

On September 21st, Li Jiaqi finally – and somewhat quietly – returned and some people said they were moved to see their lipstick hero return to the livestream scene.

Although many were overjoyed with Li’s return, it also triggered more conversations on why he had disappeared and what happened to him during the 3+ months of absence. “He talked about a sensitive topic,” one commenter said when a Weibo user asked about Li’s disappearance.

One self-media accountpublished a video titled “Li Jiaqi has returned.” The voiceover repeatedly asks why Li would have disappeared and even speculates about what might have caused it, without once mentioning the tank cake.

“This cracks me up,” one commenter wrote: “On the outside we all know what’s going on, on the inside there’s no information whatsoever.”

“It’s tacit mutual understanding,” some wrote. “It’s the elephant in the room,” others said.

Some people, however, did not care about discussing Li’s disappearance at all anymore and just expressed joy about seeing him again: “It’s like seeing a good friend after being apart for a long time.”

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by @karishea and @kaffeebart.

 

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More Than Just a Visit: Explaining the Chinese ‘Cuànfǎng’

‘Cuànfǎng’ became a popular word on Chinese social media and in official Chinese discourse this year. But what is it?

Jin Luo

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Since Pelosi’s stopover in Taiwan, the word ‘cuànfǎng’ has been all over Chinese social media to refer to this controversial visit. But ‘cuànfǎng’ is more than just ‘visiting’ alone. Jin Luo explains.

It was a sleepless night for many Chinese people when U.S. House Speaker Pelosi flew to Taiwan on August 2nd of 2022. A new Chinese word created in recent years, cuànfǎng (窜访) appeared in the official statement that was issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry at 11 pm that night, and subsequently it appeared all over social media.

Meanwhile, a pop song released more than 30 years ago titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (“今夜你会不会来”) suddenly became a Weibo hot topic before it was taken offline. What is this word lost in translation, and why did people suddenly get nostalgic over an old romantic song?

 
Cuànfǎng: A ‘Sneaky Visit’
 

Here is the original wording in Chinese and the official translation to English from the statement of the Chinese Foreign Ministry on the evening on 2 August:

In disregard of China’s strong opposition and diplomatic discontent, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited China’s Taiwan region” (“美国国会众议长佩洛西不顾中方强烈反对和严正交涉,窜访中国台湾地区.”) The word ‘visited’ in Chinese that is used here is “cuànfǎng” 窜访.

While the English verb “visit” is a neutral word by itself, the Chinese “cuànfǎng” 窜访 has much stronger connotations. According to the Wiktionary, the word is a derogatory, officialese way to say “to visit.” But it is not an easy word to translate, as there is no direct equivalent in English, and both the literal and implied meaning of the word need to be understood.

Cuànfǎng is actually a compound word: cuàn 窜 refers to fleeing, escaping, hiding, or running away; fǎng 访 refers to inquiring, seeking, or visiting.

Cuan as a compound character (Sohu).

To make matters more complicated, cuàn by itself is also a compound character. It is written as ‘竄’ in traditional Chinese: the top radical ‘穴’ means ‘hole,’ and the lower part is the character ‘鼠’ which means ‘mouse.’ The character, having the shape of a mouse hiding in a hole, therefore has the meaning of ‘hiding’ and ‘escaping.’

The origins of the character ‘cuan’ explained, image via Sohu.com.

The mouse or rat is an animal that is more often associated with negative things in Chinese culture. They are often considered sneaky, dirty, running around everywhere, and able to reproduce quickly. With mice so often carrying a negative association, cuàn ‘窜’ also refers to a kind of hiding and escaping that is negative or objectionable.

The second character fǎng 访 is a neutral word that simply means “to visit.”

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley captured the underlying meaning of this word in writing: “The Chinese word used in the official statements for ‘visit’ — cuanfang — connotes a sneaky or illicit encounter, not an aboveboard meeting.”

 
The Evolution of Cuànfǎng
 

Although it is a relatively new word, cuànfǎng already existed before the Pelosi incident and was not created in light of this controversial visit.

Since the word’s first appearance, translators have had some difficulties in properly translating the term into different languages.

Research papers in translation studies and international relations in China suggested that cuànfǎng is a “new derogatory term invented in recent years, specifically for the purpose of maintaining national security and unity, and condemning and exposing the national separatists” and “demonstrated the big wisdom of Chinese diplomatic discourse users; vividly described the image of the separatists, that they go on the run sneakily, just like thieves and mice” (source, in Chinese).

Other sources interpret it as “the unjust, improper visit conducted in order to reach hidden political agenda, to agitate and peddle the separatist ideas,” and:

1. You went somewhere where you were not supposed to go;
2. The visit was not accepted or welcomed by the (Chinese) government;
3. The purpose is to shake justice and create conflicts
” (source, in Chinese).

Cuàn was mainly meant to add an emotional aspect to the term and shows the contempt of the person who uses it.

Image via Wainao.

The word was first prominently used in Chinese official discourse when the Foreign Ministry in 2006 referred to the Dalai Lama’s visit to Israel. Since cuàn has the meaning of fleeing, it is especially suitable when referring to political dissidents who went into exile overseas.

Since then, it has been used again for further visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries (US 2014, Mongolia 2017), as well as for Rebiya Kadeer, Lee Teng-hui, Shinzo Abe, Joshua Wong, and others.

Although it is clear that the term is not only applied to Chinese dissidents, it is generally applied to those who conducted visits that were perceived to be hostile towards China, with Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit serving as a clear example.

Since the Dalai Lama has been living outside of China and conducted numerous visits to other countries, cuànfǎng was previously mostly used in this context until Pelosi’s visit, which ended up being good for more than 80% of the search results of cuànfǎng on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

If cuànfǎng is a word with such strong emotional connotations, why was it simply translated as “visit” in official English-language documents? Some say it is because of the mere difficulty to translate this word, while others say it is the routine sanitization of English translations by the Foreign Ministry.

David Gitter, president of the Center for Advanced China Research based in Washington D.C., said that the external goal of Beijing can be different from the internal goal towards the nationalist domestic audiences, and that “more accurate yet counterproductive translations … [often] breach normal diplomatic language.”

At this point, it remains up for debate whether this is a linguistic constraint or a political choice.

 
Tonight, Are You Coming or Not?
 

While the term cuànfǎng has been widely used in official discourse, it has also become a popular online word. Chinese netizens seemed to be as passionate as the Chinese Foreign Ministry – and perhaps even more so –  in condemning Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and demanding radical countermeasures.

Chinese netizens were watching the entire event unfold with mixed feelings – on the one hand, there was a strong sense of patriotism and anger, on the other hand, the massive attention to the event also turned it into something that was almost as exciting as a celebrity drama.

On that specific evening of Pelosi’s nearing arrival in Taipei, Chinese netizens were doing two things: watching real-time tracking of Pelosi’s flight, and listening to a classic pop song released in 1991 titled “Tonight, Are You Coming or Not” (今夜你会不会来) (video). Back in the previous century, Hong Kong singer Leon Lai expressed the emotions of someone waiting for his lover to arrive in this melodic song, singing:

“你是否愿意为我停留

Would you be willing to stay for me

今夜你来告诉我

Tonight, you tell me

你是否愿意陪我走过我的梦

Are you willing to accompany me through my dream?

我的所有

My everything

(Chorus)

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

如果你的心已经离开

If your heart has left already

我宁愿没有未来

I would rather not have a future

今夜你会不会来

Tonight, are you coming or not?

你的爱还在不在

Is your love still there or not?

别让我所有的等待

Don’t let all my wait

变成一片空白

Go all in vain

 

In the middle of the uncertainty about whether Pelosi would come to Taiwan or not, this song served as entertainment for netizens and became a “collective carnival” of people jokingly applying the song to Pelosi, turning her into a ‘mysterious lover’ that might or might not show up. (Later, some were unable to play the song anymore, although it remains unclear if this was due to geographic restrictions or because the song was actually taken offline by censors.)

“Taiwan has been preparing for your cuànfǎng ‘sneaky visit’, are you coming or not tonight?” some netizens wrote, combining the title song with the cuànfǎng term. In doing so, Pelosi became both a ‘sneaky mouse’ and ‘mysterious lover’, both a target of condemnation and subject of fun and banter.

All jokes and cuànfǎng references aside, Pelosi did end up realizing that visit, and its aftermath, including a second Taiwan visit by a U.S. congressional delegation, has had a substantial impact on U.S.-China relations that were already strained before the move.

Will there be more cuànfǎng to Taiwan? It’s likely not an issue of if, but when. For next time, at least we’ve got cuànfǎng covered.

 

By Jin Luo 

Featured image by Alexa from Pixabay

 

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