Back to the 1950s? Weibo and the Patriotic Journalist
by Adam Cathcart, with Franz Bleeker
Had Chinese journalists been equipped with Weibo feeds in the early 1950s, what might they have said? Like the slashing calligraphy of a big-character poster, a Weibo post has every potential at its disposal: It can commemorate injustices visited upon the dead, threaten violence upon the state’s presumed enemies, and proclaim the author’s pithy ideological correctness.
For Chinese journalists and intellectuals of the 1950s, the microblog medium surely would have offered an ideal method through which to demonstrate what necessarily had to be publicly demonstrated: support, among other things, for the new government’s campaigns to police and purge China of the human legacies of imperialism.
In the context of Beijing’s present campaign to regulate and police China’s polyglot foreign population, a recollection of the early 1950s might, seem a bit of a stretch. Few foreigners today are being publicly beaten or humiliated, and none sentenced to death. Using China’s own metrics for the expansion of human rights, this should count as a sign of progress.
When one reads a careful translation of the now-notorious May 16, microblog post by Yang Rui, the prominent CCTV-English television host, one might be forgiven for having flashbacks to the movement to “suppress counterrevolutionaries.”
The historical resonance of Yang’s inflammatory comments – not to mention their almost precise echoing of themes in the North Korean media – escaped the notice of most commentators. What was noticed was the fact that Yang’s post was intended to lay down a line of supportive fire for the government in debates about incidents in May involving foreigners.
If it remains unclear if Yang’s post was an act of great virtuosity or stupidity, it might bear recalling that the ability of a state journalist to augment one’s usefulness to the state via an act of calculated provocation in a year of political transition is not entirely easy. Like his famous counterpart Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, Yang Rui is nothing if not a establishment “intellectual,” a man whose vocation is to aid the state in promoting a matrix of lively but rarely challenging domestic propaganda and at least the internal image of international prestige.
Might it be possible, however, to view Yang Rui’s actions in a less cynical light, through the prism not of the bullied and bullying propagandist, but instead through the historical prism of embattled Chinese nationalism? Whatever the state incentive structure, Chinese journalists can easily slip upon themselves the mantle of nation, and do so with the most sanguine language. It might bear recalling that in week in question, Yang Rui’s outburst was competing with a Xinhua reporter who had picked up and boated all the way out to an island off of the Philippine coast to plant a Chinese flag.
In line with such patriotic writers and television journalists, Yang Rui has thousands of predecessors, men and women with a cause. One in particular bears noting: Wang Yunsheng (王芸生), born in Tianjin in 1901.
Like Yang Rui, Wang Yunsheng had spent significant time abroad (in Japan, rather than England), and often leveraged that experience as a means of augmenting his credibility in the Chinese marketplace of ideas. Long before the television era, Wang’s influence during the War of Resistance was radiated outward through the typeface of the Dagongbao, the respected daily paper.
His editorial offices in Chongqing having been bombed by the Japanese, Wang stayed on in the ersatz capital in 1946, met Mao Zedong and did his part to attack the enemies and false allies of China – who at the time included Harry Truman, Josef Stalin, and the miraculously undead Japanese militarist Hideki Tojo. Offered a paid trip to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur, Wang accepted the invitation, rubbed shoulders with Japanese colleagues, returned to Shanghai and proceeded to savage American occupation policy as an independent voice. He was an intrepid soul in intrepid times.
The problem with being a critical soul, however, is that times can change; to be a good journalist in China, one has to be a chameleon as well. In Wang’s case, his unfiltered attacks on Stalin and extensive contacts with Americans during the war morphed into career problems after 1949, when the CCP took over the Dagongbao. His authoritative book on Japan had to be heavily revised for reissue during the Anti-Rightist Campaign; Wang’s insufficiently Marxist analysis of Japanese imperialism brought him a great deal of pain. Tweets, it seems, can be deleted, but a book is forever. Wang Yunsheng managed to survive the Cultural Revolution and died just as Yang Rui was preparing to enter university in Jilin in 1980.
The difficult experience of Wang Yunsheng and whole generation of Chinese journalists is a quiet undercurrent to China’s contemporary media landscape. The lessons learned during the original takeover of China’s press structures in the late 1940s, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, and having been yanked back from the edge of full-scale change in 1989 have been learned at no small cost. Perhaps this is why Yang Rui is no Deng Tuo. Yang, after all, has learned to align himself not so much with a specific set of policies and cultural debates as with the master narrative of “China’s rise,” its raw power and influence.
In the aftermath of Yang’s Weibo explosion, critics went digging through the rest of his online oeuvre. However, no one seems to have mentioned his interview with “Zhongguo Guangbo Yingshi”, a magazine published by SARFT – in which, Yang explained his own role in 2008:
Q: Behind every outstanding program, its producers may have tough times, and there may be setbacks in the process. How do you overcome difficulties or crisis?
Yang: When things aren’t the way one wants them to be, personally, I remind myself more frequently that I’m no longer just representing myself, but that I’m an image spokesperson of the country, that my ideological level must match with my image on the screen, that I should, as far as possible, be indifferent to worldly rewards, and remain aware of the overall picture.
Later, speaking for a full hour about himself and China’s image on a counterpart talk show hosted by Sultan M. Ali in Pakistan, Yang provided more or less the most complete example to date:
When you talk about my own image, it’s not about myself, really. My name, my image, are a symbol of a country on the rise, and our rapid integration into the rest of the world has generated so many debates as to the global and […] implications whether we pose any threat to our neighboring countries or the existing international economic and political order. Certainly we have different values and a different social system. But does it mean that we would have zero tolerance for differences, or the other way round? This is a question I keep asking in hundreds of editions of dialogues that I have with elites, politicians, policy makers from around the whole world. I never take myself as a an anchor in that sense, because China needs to have a dialogue.
A dialogue on the basis of China’s economic strength and growing global might seems rather preferable to a rhetorical redux of the paranoid campaigns of the early People’s Republic. The extent to which Chinese journalists and television personalities are able to balance their patriotic legacy against the bruises hidden by the flag may dictate how far China is ultimately able to rise.
Adam Cathcart is Lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds; Franz Bleeker, who provided indispensible input for this essay, is an independent sinologist and translator in Bremen, Germany.