Delegates' gaffes get a thunderous response from internet users

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 March, 2011, 12:00am

The nation's lawmakers and political advisers, charged with the task of speaking up for the interests of the people, sometimes end up becoming the target of public mockery and anger for their efforts.

Every year, internet users collect and file quotes they consider bizarre, outrageous or clueless from National People's Congress deputies and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference members.

They call them 'thunderous' comments. Thunder, a literal translation of the Chinese word lei, refers to the level of shock people feel when they hear the quotes.

Official media, such as CCTV, have been informed not to use the word 'thunder' to describe the representatives and their quotes. And, according to some reporters, they have also been instructed not to report news or comments that might be considered thunderous by the public. But other local and online platforms face fewer restrictions, and this year's quotes have gone viral again.

One of those criticised was delegate Wang Ping, the curator of the China Ethnic Museum and a CPPCC member. She was picked on after local media quoted her saying rural Chinese should not be encouraged to go to university.

The comment immediately sparked anger on websites such as Weibo, China's version of Twitter, which attracts more than 25 million new users every month.

Wang was not the first delegate to be criticised for her remarks. The list of delegates under fire this year includes Ma Weihua, director and president of China Merchants Bank; Li Shufu, chairman of Geely Automobile; and Yang Guangcheng, director of the Yunnan Provincial Communications Department. Such annual teasing existed because the public felt their voices had not been heard and there was no way to challenge the establishment, said Wen Yunchao, an internet expert and winner of the French Republic's Human Rights Prize last year.

'A huge reason internet users are ridiculing the delegates is because their normal channels to participate in politics have been blocked,' Wen said, adding that the practice started about two years ago.

Wang, the CPPCC member, was accused of trying to deprive rural people of their basic rights and of being an elitist. Even scholars like Yu Jianrong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Rural Development, wrote sarcastically on Weibo: 'Of course it's not deputy Wang Ping's fault. It's the rural kids who want to go to university who are causing all the trouble.'

Ye Kai, editor of the bimonthly literary magazine Harvest, wrote: 'I'm wondering how these representatives were created. I'm wondering if anyone of you has ever elected a deputy yourselves? If they don't represent me, and don't represent you, who do they represent?'

One internet user said of Wang's comment: 'Your suggestions are discriminatory fallacies. You should bow your head and apologise ... otherwise you will drown in the spit of our 800 million peasant brothers.'

Wang said her comments had been taken out of context after the media boiled down her long speech to: 'We also should not encourage rural children to attend university, because once rural children go to university, they won't be able to go back to their hometowns, which is a tragedy.'

The 56-year-old, who admitted her wording could have been more polished, said she had little idea she had spurred such havoc on the Net.

'They totally misunderstood me,' Wang said. She told the South China Morning Post that she saw the slums in countries that experienced excessive urbanisation and thought China should not head down the same path. While she was not opposed to the country investing heavily in urbanisation, she suggested the government also set aside some of that money for rural development and produce jobs for people in their hometowns.

'If we create the impression that happiness lies only within cities, impose that thought and rush them into cities, this will create disaster in the future,' Wang said. That was why she used the jobless rural graduate example to explain why universities were not always the solution, she said.

Some internet users have urged a more lenient and objective view of events, but the wave of resentment continues. More than 93 per cent of the 1,842 people who took part in a Weibo survey about Wang's fate wanted her to step down as a CPPCC member by Friday afternoon.

Wen, the internet scholar, said China was experiencing a typical three-phase conversation pattern. In phase one, people engaged in serious conversations and were excited to offer suggestions to the government. When they felt the dialogue was not going anywhere, they resorted to sarcasm to release their anger. If the situation still did not improve, apathy would kick in.

'The scariest part is when people turn numb, because anything the government says will fall on deaf ears,' Wen said.

But Zhan Jiang, of Beijing Foreign Studies University's journalism and communications department, said the government was aware of the need for free speech and information. 'They are allowing the public to air sensitive comments on not-so-sensitive topics,' said Zhan, adding that, in a sense, the public was also choosing to pick on people with less power.

Many of the NPC's nearly 3,000 deputies are business owners, scholars and high-profile people from all walks of life who are not as powerful as the Standing Committee's 150-odd members. Zhan's theory would explain why such mockery is allowed on Weibo, which is screened daily by censors.

Back in the Great Hall of the People, Wang is finishing the last days of the year's meetings. She said she would watch her wording from now on, but did not blame internet users for the misunderstanding. 'People always need a channel to speak and discuss things,' she said. 'I might open a Weibo account myself so I can communicate with the public a bit better.'