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Sinica backgrounder: Nationalism, celebrity divorce and murder-suicide: Understanding contemporary China through online public opinion

1 week ago
Jeremy Goldkorn
or the October 13 episode of Sinica, explore Chinese netizens' commentary on current affairs, including online conversations about three recent incidents examined by the show's guest, the writer and editor Ma Tianjie.

Although China’s media and public opinion polls remain tightly controlled by the government, the rise of social media has given ordinary users a way to publish their views on anything from celebrity scandals to environmental problems to foreign affairs. This public voice is often censored, manipulated by companies and online cliques, and frequently divorced from the reality of the offline world, but it is a fascinating and complex way to understand what’s going on in China, and how the country is seen by its citizens and their government.

To explore and explain this digital world, the Sinica Podcast episode of October 13 features Ma Tianjie, the creator of Chublic Opinion, a blog that examines public opinion on the Chinese internet. He discusses three recent events that triggered extreme online reactions: a spate of incidents this summer that provoked the wrath of nationalists; a celebrity divorce that set off a huge debate; and the shocking murder-suicide carried out by a woman who killed herself and her four young children in rural Gansu Province.

Ma Tianjie is also the editor of China Dialogue, a bilingual website that covers environmental issues, and a returning guest to the Sinica Podcast. He was first heard in the 2015 episode “Public opinion with Chinese characteristics.” 

Below is a reading list from a variety of sources on the three specific topics covered in the podcast and on the general subject of Chinese public opinion.

The suicidal and voiceless / Chublic Opinion

Yang Gailan, a 28-year-old farmer and mother of four, living in the remote mountains of Gansu Province, one of the poorest corners of the country, committed suicide after murdering her four children with an ax and pesticide. Her husband killed himself a few days later. The tragedy became a topic of national conversation.

Further reading

Horrible murder-suicide: Poverty drives young mother in Gansu to kill her four children and herself, grieved husband soon follows suit / People’s Daily

Mother Kills Her Children And Herself; Chinese Bloggers Ask Why / NPR

Women and suicide in rural China / World Health Organization

Sex, lies and Wang Baoqiang / Chublic Opinion

Wang Baoqiang, raised in a poor family from a small city in Hebei Province, became a film star in 2004 playing a naive peasant farmer in A World Without Thieves, a mainland blockbuster directed by Feng Xiaogang, one of China’s most popular directors. Wang is a much-loved celebrity known for playing characters with backgrounds similar to his own. In August 2016, he posted a statement to social media declaring that he would divorce his wife, whom he said was having an affair with his agent. The resulting controversy on the internet included discussions of celebrities’ rights to privacy, the responsibilities of married men and women, and the divide between high-minded public intellectuals and the reality of the lives of the Chinese masses.

Further reading

Why a celebrity divorce has Chinese social media buzzing / BBC

Poll: 96.8% of Chinese netizens think Wang Baoqiang will come out on top in messy divorce scandal / Shanghaiist

Wang Baoqiang’s Weibo Marriage Crisis: (Ex) Wife Ma Rong Strikes Back / What’s On Weibo

Patriotic July / Chublic Opinion

In the early years of the internet, many pundits and evangelizers saw the global online network as a force that would destroy authoritarian governments and unite digital citizens in a global, postnational cyberworld. But in China, since the early years of the 21st century, the internet has proved to be a powerful force that encourages nationalism and unites fenqing — angry patriotic youth. Cyberactivism is sometimes encouraged by the government, but often controlled and censored for fear it might get out of control. This article by Ma Tianjie looks at how nationalism offline and online manifested in July 2016 in protests against the actress and director Zhao Wei, activism on the South China Sea issue and protests against the fried-chicken chain KFC.

Further reading

Unease over China’s Angry Youth /

Angry Youth / The New Yorker

Internet Fans Flames of Chinese Nationalism / YaleGlobal Online

A Glimpse into Chinese Nationalism / The Diplomat 

The Making of a Chinese Nationalist Internet User / Foreign Policy 

KFC Targeted in Protests Over South China Sea / The New York Times

South China Sea: Beijing calls KFC, Apple protests ‘irrational’ / CNN

Vicky Zhao, Leon Dai Under Fire From China Nationalists / Variety

The internet: Public opinion and its guidance

Parsing the “public opinion struggle” / China Media Project 

Guidance of Public Opinion 舆论导向 / China Media Project 

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall / China Media Project on Medium

Behind the Great Firewall / The China Story Yearbook 2012

China’s Internet: A Civilising Process / The China Story Yearbook 2013

Cyber China: Updating Propaganda, Public Opinion Work and Social Management for the 21st Century / Rogier Creemers

People’s Daily official on anti-rumour campaign and online public opinion management / China Copyright and Media

Speech at the News and Public Opinion Work Conference / China Copyright and Media

People’s Daily Lists Top “Public Opinion Guidance” / China Digital Times

By Jeremy Goldkorn
Jeremy Goldkorn lived in China from 1995 to 2015, working as an editor, publisher and writer in print and digital media. He founded, a research firm, which began in 2003 and was acquired by the Financial Times in 2013. He is an affiliate of the Australian National University's Center on China in the World, and a co-editor of the China Story website and annual China Story Yearbook. He is co-host of the Sinica Podcast, and founder of Great Wall Fresh, a social enterprise to help Chinese peasant farmers run small tourism businesses catering to foreign outdoor enthusiasts. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2015, and is a board member of the Tennessee China Network.