In practical terms there are two main poles in the Chinese media-sphere: state-run media and Weibo. With the former, the public receives the official, polished version of events. By contrast, the latter features an ongoing stream of news, covering the good, the bad and the ugly – with particular emphasis on the latter two. Indeed, bad news is passed along the Weibo grapevine, a microblogging service with 400 million users, at lightning speed, picking up color and humor along the way.
A prime example: the mysterious recent appearance of around 11,000 dead pigs showing up in Shanghai’s Huangpu River, followed by more than 1,000 dead ducks found stuffed in 50 to 60 woven plastic bags, bobbing in the Nanhe River in Pengshan county, Sichuan province.
As news of the nation’s second incidence of mass livestock deaths in the course of a month spread, state media was quick to jump in and put the public at ease. Xinhua reported a local official as saying that there was nothing to fear. The report also mentioned that local authorities had not determined the birds’ cause of death.
As the Financial Times noted, the Weibo community was quick to respond. “How can you tell they are harmless when you don’t know how the ducks died?” one Weibo user asked. Another jumped in: “First it was pork soup, now duck soup is available.”
This response is typical of Weibo’s users, who offer an ongoing social commentary of China’s day-to-day affairs. “There were all kinds of funny responses to the news about the pigs and ducks,” Shanghai resident and regular Weibo blogger Joyce Cai told The Diplomat. “Most people were being sarcastic and making fun of the government. Some were quite funny.”
China’s penchant for biting, cynical commentary surprises some, as Ginger Huang noted in an article published by The World of Chinese, a Beijing-based English-language monthly magazine. Huang notes that even novelist and essayist Lin Yutang, who was responsible for translating the word “humor” into Chinese (settling on yōumò) succumbed to this misconception. When asked if he thought his compatriots were unable to discern the nuances of irony and wit, Lin responded, “That is a concrete fact, indeed.”
In the article, Huang wrote: “Whenever you log on (to Weibo), fresh news of corruption, pollution, bus crashes and collapsed bridges fall faster than an avalanche. The world of Weibo is such a stark contrast to the CCTV-1 Network News that users need a big dose of humor and satire.”
Huang introduces some of the most renowned satirists of Weibo, including one who parodies a diehard North Korean patriot, another who gives an irreverent guide to navigating the modern world for young people through a parody of a traditional fortune telling calendar, and a group of 50 Hangzhou-based dubbers who rewrite soap operas, films and news clips and redub them with absurdist replacement scripts.
For Cai, “Humor attracts attention easier. But the downside is that sometimes people trust what they read on Weibo too easily, without thinking.”
She adds, “This is not the problem of Weibo, but of official news. If they let the truth out then it would not let social media have the chance to take advantage of it. Of course the government has already realized that too, and is using Weibo. But that’s a whole different story.”
Even the United Nations was dragged into the act, with Weibo users selling fake tickets last December for a chance to board an ark ahead of the prophesied Mayan Apocalypse on December 21, 2012. The tickets, called “United Nations 2012 China Tibetan Noah’s Ark tickets,” were selling for around 10 yuan (U.S. $1.60) a pop with a “face value” of 10 billion yuan, according to Shanghaiist.
In response to the Weibo meme, the UN felt obliged to announce on its own official Weibo account: “The United Nations sincerely has not issued any boat tickets.”
The tickets were on sale before the apocalyptic Mayan prophecy, which proved inaccurate when December 21 ended with civilization intact. Had the Mayan interpreters been right, the response on Weibo would have been interesting.