:: “men,” as in 门 (the Chinese word for “gate”), is an important element of modern Web culture in China. Chinese netizens and even the local media at-large are fond of tacking “gate” (门) onto scandals and memes, perhaps even more than the Western press. Chinese netizens are even quicker on the draw; online conversation about scandals is often a forest of “gates,” many of which have similar or even identical names. This week’s Friday 5 takes a look at recent examples from five of the most common categories of “gates” on the Chinese Internet: food quality, donations, cars, espionage, and of course, the centerpiece of all durable Internet buzz, sex!
food: radiation-gate ::
Food safety has been a serious issue for Chinese netizens this year following the melamine milk scandal of 2008. A number of brands have been embroiled in their own additive scandals (a previous Friday 5 addressed Mengniu and Wang Lao Ji); in July, two instant noodle makers, Master Kong and UniPresident, found themselves in a scandal over labeling and irradiation. The allegations, published by a prominent business newspaper, accused the two companies of distributing instant noodle packages without clearly labeling that they had been irradiated. Both companies denied the charges and insisted that their products were completely safe. Dubbed “radiation-gate” (辐射门) by netizens and media, the scandal was related more to the deception than the radiation itself (although a small but significant portion of the online conversation was devoted to radiation fears). The initial response of both brands was mealy-mouthed: UniPresident claimed it did not use radiation but “could not rule out” use by its suppliers; Master Kong pled ignorance, saying it didn’t know it had to note that its suppliers used radiation. A rather snarky news report made the rounds of video sites and caught the attention of online gamers and other netaholics who survive off of instant noodles at Web cafe’s, etc. (”Woe to my instant noodle life!” reads one comment on the video.) Other netizens piled on with other quality complaints. Ultimately both brands said that they would improve their package labeling. Although the news caused considerable stir immediately after it was reported, Chinese Internet users quickly tired of the affair and it is no longer brought up in discussions of the brand and instant noodles in general. As with many of the minor “-gates” that crop up in online conversation, “radiation-gate” does not exclusively refer to the instant noodles affair: it’s also been used by Chinese netizens to describe mobile phone radiation scares and the effect of high-voltage power pylons on residential neighborhoods.
Yu Qiuyu’s “donation-gate” ::
Yu Qiuyu (余秋雨), a drama professor turned popular essayist turned TV commentator, has long been dogged by controversies ranging from accusations of being a henchman of the notorious Gang of Four to having accepted a luxurious villa from the Shenzhen government in exchange for favorable reviews. The source of Yu’s latest controversy, known as “donation gate,” was his old foe Xiao Xialin (肖夏林), whom he once brought to court for defamation. On May 14, 2008, shortly after the Sichuan earthquake, Yu announced that he would donate RMB 200,000 to build an elementary school in the quake-stricken Dujiangyan. In a blog post published on May 5 of this year, Xiao Xialin suggested that Yu had not spent a cent of his own money. He demanded that Yu provide proof he had really donated. A blog post Yu made in the wake of the earthquake in which he issued a “tearful plea” to the Chinese people had been mocked by a wide swath of Internet users, and his silence on the donation issue revived his “tearful professor” title and prompted more mockery from netizens, including this article sarcastically proposing that the Chinese government should help Yu to forge a donation receipt. Some public figures, such as Yi Zhongtian (易中天), also urged Yu to show evidence. The belated response came in June 22, when Yu denied the charges following a newspaper report that quoted a local government official from Dujiangyan confirming that Yu did donate RMB 200,000. According to the government official, because the construction standard has been upgraded after the earthquake, RMB 200,000 was no longer enough to build a school, so it was spent to buy books for three school libraries to be named after him. This was not enough for some netizens, who were put off by the thought that Yu had made the donation under public pressure or out of self-promotion. “Whether the donation is real or not, I think that the actions of Yu and his cronies are more disgusting than misappropriating RMB 200,000,” read one comment.
In the beginning of September, a driver in Shanghai named Zhang was stopped by a pedestrian who complained that his stomach was killing him and who asked for a ride to the hospital because he couldn’t wait for a taxi. Zhang refused his passenger’s offer of payment, but when he reached the hospital, the passenger grabbed his keys, and the car was surrounded by seven or eight uniformed individuals. Zhang was charged with illegally operating a taxi. In many Chinese cities, unlicensed taxis are frequently targeted by law-enforcement campaigns and their drivers are subject to fines, license suspensions, or even more serious punishment, but this kind of fishing expedition, preying on the good intentions of ordinary citizens, raised the hackles of many netizens who already had a fairly poor opinion of local law enforcement. The situation first came to public attention when Han Han (韩寒), a bestselling author and race car driver who keeps a phenomenally popular blog, posted two letters under the heading “This is certainly just a rumor” on September 11. From Han, who has been named an online public opinion leader by a number of media outlets, the story received immense exposure, and the mainstream press tracked down and verified the story. “Fishing-gate” spawned op-ed columns on entrapment, the rule of law, and the limits of administrative authority, and these in turn generated even more netizen debate (”Where is my Party, my great Communist Party? We miss you so!”) and parody. Han prefaced his repost of the rumors with the following comment: “I’m republishing two posts that have not been verified. It’s highly likely that they’re just rumor-mongering by reactionary elements bent on ruining the National Day atmosphere. I’ve selected them so that the relevant departments can proceed with arrests.” This is a reference to the arrests of previous online rumor-mongers, including one of the netizens involved in a previous car-related “gate”: the “Hu Bin stand-in-gate” (胡斌替身门 or “surro-gate”, as one translator put it). That scandal captured netizen imaginations over the summer and demonstrated the limits of the power of crowd-sourcing to determine the truth from questionable photographs. Hu Bin, who struck and killed a pedestrian, turned up in court looking very different from photos taken at the scene. Rumors sprung up online that he had hired someone to take his place in prison. The “human flesh search engine” tracked down a likely stand-in. Someone masquerading as that individual denied the rumors, but it took the mainstream media to clear up the situation and determine that Hu Bin had actually appeared in court.
Espionage has considerable cachet online in China. Unverifiability of much of the information about spies has rumors flying fast and thick, and Chinese netizens attempt to ferret out the truth even as the mainstream media remains tight-lipped. In June, rumors snowballed that Fang Jing (方静), the host of prime-time CCTV programs such as Defense Watch who had lately been absent from the screen, was accused of being a spy for Taiwan, detained, and missing for three months. “Fang Jing Spy-Gate” (方静间谍门) led to a lot of speculation online about the situation, even after she denied the rumors. Later it was revealed that rival CCTV presenter and professor Ah Yi (阿忆), who could have been jealous of her, exposed her status as a “spy” for Taiwan in a cryptic blog post (since deleted; repost here). Fang Jing quickly returned to present another program for CCTV to put an end to the rumors altogether, although conversation about the incident continued: a blog post on Sina BBS dissects the heated discussion following Ah Yi’s rumormongering. In another recent spy-gate, Rio Tinto employees, including the Shanghai General Manager, were detained by the Chinese PSB in July on suspicion of stealing state secrets. Known as “Rio Tinto Gate” (力拓门) or “Rio Tinto Spy-gate” (力拓间谍门), the case came at a time of bad relations between the Australian government and China, and it sent a shock through the international iron ore industry. The murky situation was quickly elaborated upon, but the online response in China was widespread. Both the Fang Jing and Rio Tinto Spy-Gates were talked about in light of the then-popular espionage TV drama Hidden (潜伏), which involves a Communist spy in the KMT before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Variations of the spy cases have cropped up, after Rio Tinto’s “gate” turned into a “spy and espionage gate”: on the Netease Money BBS, for example, netizens talked about a senior member of Shougang (首都钢铁公司) being taken away for corruption. In the iron industry, it seems, espionage “gates” are closely tied to bribery “gates” at the moment.
Since the Edison Chen (陈冠希) “racy photo-gate” broke in 2008, leakages of private / bedroom photos and videos have turned up fairly regularly on the Chinese Internet. The ones that attract the most attention involve celebrities who inadvertently got their overexposed personal pictures leaked. Often these get compared to the Edison Chen scandal (as the topless paparazzi photos of Zhang Ziyi (子怡) – “beach gate” – was in January), but they tend to fade away much more quickly. Other popular sex scandals involve teens who intentionally post their own racy photos or videos to the Internet. In “breast rubbing gate”: In a video which has been circulating on the Internet since late June, a female student is lying on a desk in what looks like a classroom; around her are a number of male students fondling her breasts. Via “human flesh searching” tactics, Chinese netizens eventually discovered the real identity of the girl, a student at a vocational school in Cixi, Zhejiang Province. After the incident broke, the girl in the video posted to her QQ page (repost) that she was under immense pressure and felt suicidal. Netizens engaged in heated debate about the moral issues involved. This blog post argues that the moralists who criticize the girl have done more damage to her than her classmates. Netizens also discussed another issue highlighted by the incident, the imbalance gender ratio: as the only female in the class, the girl said she gave consent to the boys for the “solidarity of the whole class.” For these sex scandals, even though most websites swiftly delete the content whenever it pops up, a sufficiently determined and patient Internet user can eventually locate a reposted copy.
[Friday 5 is the product of my work for Edelman Digital (China). Link here for the full Friday 5 archive. If you'd like to be added to the bilingual (English & Chinese) Friday 5 email distribution list, please send me an email at: adam DOT schokora AT edelman DOT com.]