• Thu
  • Jul 24, 2014
  • Updated: 1:41am
CommentInsight & Opinion

'Chance encounter' with Xi at Beijing bun shop proves very hard to stomach

Chang Ping decries propaganda officials posing as citizen bloggers to deceive the public over visit

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 9:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 9:37am

A few years ago, a young man walking along a street in Tianjin saw from afar then president Hu Jintao leading an inspection tour of the area. He was so excited he tried to call his friend on his mobile phone, but there was no signal. Only after Hu and his entourage left did the network signal return.

The person he had tried to call told me this story.

After news spread two weeks ago of Xi Jinping's visit to the Qingfeng steamed bun shop, I thought to myself that if the Tianjin story was true, I could understand why nobody could immediately post a message or a photo of Xi eating at the Beijing shop. In the photos and video clips released later, many people were seen taking snapshots of Xi or posing for a photo with him. But the first post emerged only an hour after his visit.

Now, however, two weeks have passed. Why haven't we seen more people posting text and photos of their encounter with the president?

Compared with the long lines of excited "pilgrims" queuing up outside the Qingfeng shop for a taste of the "Chairman's set meal", those lucky people who found themselves at the scene that day appeared unbelievably calm.

This kind of news is usually reported as a result of "chance encounters by ordinary netizens". In this case, official media widely cited a Weibo post by a "CCTV Commentator" that said: "'Bun + fried liver + vegetable" is a standard meal at Qingfeng; 'pay for the food + collect the food + eat the food' is the standard practice of ordinary citizens; 'meet by chance + take out mobile phone + send a post' is the standard modus operandi of Chinese netizens".

A Global Times commentary said: "Xi's visit was a complete surprise to the people running the bun shop, who said they weren't told beforehand, and the news was first reported by people who were there and who posted photos on social media, which were later picked up by mainstream media. The spread of the news was natural, with no government control".

Indeed, these "chance encounters" are an important part of the story.

In reality, the two microblog accounts that sent out the initial reports are government accounts masquerading as those of ordinary citizens.

According to an analysis posted by netizen Zheng Zhi, the microblogger "Ubiquitous Weiboer" is clearly a fake identity used by the propaganda authorities, based on the camera angle of the photos, the time they were sent, details about the image and account information. Propaganda officials have already ordered the removal of this article.

The other microblogger, "Homeland nostalgia" on Tencent, was a recently registered account. It was promptly closed after sending out those photos.

All the reports and photos seen so far have originated from these two accounts, even though official media likes to cite "many internet users". Some believe the entire incident - the diners, the photo-taking - was staged.

This is possible. Blogger Li Jianmang told of another ridiculous story. At a time when China was commemorating the death of Mao Zedong , someone posted an article titled "Remembering Chairman Mao and the Battle to Defend Ideology" overseas in the name of Xinhua and People's Daily, which was then widely circulated. Li alerted Sina Weibo to the fraud, but not only did the company fail to take action, it repeatedly tried to delete his account. Clearly the article was no fake.

Xi has sparked a trend among mandarins of the land for such "incognito visits". Some may choose to ride the subway while others sweep the streets, but all of them will just happen to run into journalists or "ordinary netizens".

A "chance encounter" has become the latest term used to mock official deceit.

Chinese officials tell so many lies that such "chance encounters" are treated by most as entertainment. Some people even think that this is just part of politics: no matter how fake, a show of "connection with the people" is better than nothing.

Drawing media attention is indeed part and parcel of modern politics, but the strict control of public debate and fooling the public is something else. For the propaganda authorities to set up microblog accounts masquerading as voices of the people is no publicity strategy; it is outright public deception.

Officials have used this ruse for years. One typical example is the "50-cent gang" groomed by the propaganda department to pose as ordinary citizens in support of maintaining social stability - so called because of the money they receive in exchange for their service.

This "chance encounter" strategy can be said to be an improvement: instead of official media like Xinhua reporting on the latest about our leaders, we now have "ordinary netizens" "breaking the news" on the internet. A step up for the propaganda department surely, but a step backwards for government integrity and information transparency.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese

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