Until this week, the social critic Sima Nan was best known for getting his head stuck in an escalator at Dulles Airport. That moment was particularly precious because Nan, a devoted neo-Maoist, had just posted another of his anti-America screeds on Sina Weibo before flying to DC.
But China’s most famous wumao is now back in the news for a more impressive reason: as an impassioned defender of free speech.
The wumao, or 50-centers, are patriotic Web commenters who sing the praises of big government, whether for a paycheck or genuine nationalism – the latter have a special name, Ziganwu, “wumao who runs on his own fuel.” (Indeed, this very site has lately been enjoying their considerable insight –Ed.)
The talk of the Chinese Internet has been the overnight elevation of a new leader to the wumao ranks, “online writer” Zhou Xiaoping. Zhou reportedly was invited to attend a Forum on Art and Literature on October 15 held by “Uncle” Xi Jinping, where he posted a rather blurry selfie that featured the chairman in the background. That he wasn’t wrestled to the ground indicated Zhou’s star was in the ascendancy.
The 33-year-old actually began his writing efforts with a Sina blog back in 2005, where his provocatively titled articles have the measured nuance of Rush Limbaugh on a Vicodin binge. “America-Style Democracy Can Kill You,” begins one. Another warns, “If American Soldiers Invade China, I Will Have No Choice But To Join the Taliban.” Many are plain vulgar: “Some Gossip About the Gay Affair Between Gary Locke and Brother Blind” describes an alleged relationship between the former US ambassador and blind activist Chen Guangchen.
Such sophomoric writings have made Zhou a laughingstock even within the wumao community. His nickname, “Belt Fish” Zhou, was earned for his penchant toward fabricating evidence (Zhou had claimed that social critic Charles Xue was “spreading rumors” about Zhejiang beltfish farms suffering water pollution. When people pointed out that the beltfish is not farmed, Zhou revised his article and claimed the original was by an unknown sock puppet out to discredit him).
Has Xi actually read any of Zhou’s bollocks? Hard to say, but that’s irrelevant now anyway. Following the presidential praise, Zhou is a made man, and millions of readers have to pretend to give a shit about what he says. He has interviews with People’s Daily and affiliated tabloid Global Times (neither mention the beltfish), and has published three articles (“Broken Dreams in the USA,” “Fly, Chinese Dream,” and “Their Dreams and Our Flags”) on Reference News, the best-selling newspaper in China.
Not that there aren’t knives out for Zhou. Fang Shimin, better known as Fang Zhouzi for his relentless fights against plagiarism and fraud, published his own point-by-point critique of Zhou’s “Broken Dreams” on October 21.
The pair has history. Fang himself was maligned by Zhou in a 2010 article titled “This World Will Enjoy Harmony When Fang Zhouzi Doesn’t Exist Anymore.” It took four years, but Zhou’s wish was realized merely hours after Fang’s rebuttal came out: Not only was the blog deleted, Fang’s accounts on Sina Weibo and Sina Blog were soon gone altogether. Within a day, almost all reposts of the article were also erased. It’s as if Fang didn’t exist anymore.
But with Fang, has harmony returned to the galaxy? Far from it, says, of all people, Sima Nan. “Fang held his rationality as always and corrected the untrue parts in [Zhou Xiaoping]’s article,” Sima wrote (pictured below). “I tried to repost Fang’s article but was blocked too. Firstly, I hope that was a mistake by law enforcement; second, I hope the blogger [i.e. Zhou] will stand up and speak for himself; and third, hopefully Fang Zhouzi’s account will be spared from death when the sun rises again.”
Alas, it was Sima’s post itself that was deleted. That led to a meditation on rule of law, the theme of the Communist Party’s Fourth Plenum.
“Learning from the plenum documents should combine realities. There’s one thing I just can’t get over thinking about,” admitted the leftist in an emotional plea. “A popular science writer that I know, whose name now cannot even be mentioned, is blocked all over the Internet. None of his works can be read on Weibo or WeChat. Please – exactly what law did this writer break? Stripping him of his right to speech rights, is that legal? Please help me understand!”
That post was also blocked. Unbowed, Sima made a third petition: “Could [administrators] mercifully allow [Fang’s] popular science writings to be published? Even in the days when the Qin Emperor launched his ‘Burning Books and Burying Scholars’ campaign, he didn’t burn all books… Your grace, please think carefully!”
So, why is Sima Nan doing this?
Well, he wasn’t always been known for being a blowhard. Sima was once a keen critic of pseudo-science himself in the 1990s. He met Fang in 1997 as a guest speaker at a forum led by Fang on academic corruption, according to this interview. “Fang Zhouzi is hardworking, insightful and feisty… many elites choose to protect themselves by not pointing fingers at plagiarism and lies, but some choose to stand out. Fang is a respectable, fearless warrior,” he told the journalist in 2010.
Fang returned the favor by publicly acknowledging Sima as a friend, something which won him few friends (here’s Sima having a shoe thrown at him by one of his detractors). “I don’t agree with his basic political ideas, but it doesn’t mean I can’t make friends with him,” Fang said in an interview with Tencent News. “I’m not looking for a political ally.”
But friendship may be only part of the reason. Political observer Zhang Lifang says that Xi Jinping’s Mao-style Forum is an attempt to seize the “market” of mainstream commentary and “replace it with political control.” Many, like Sima, were tempted to sign up, says Zhang: “But as it turned out to simply mean degrading themselves ahead of cheap scum like Zhou, they are reluctant.
“Even if Zhou doesn’t have a market, he doesn’t need one. If one day all public intellectuals are diminished, [wumao] will lose their jobs too. That’s why you now see many wumaos like Sima Nan talking more and more like public intellectuals.”
That, after all, may not be a bad thing.
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