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David Wertime

"Leaving of My Own Volition" Meme Explodes Courtesy of Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng

When the going gets tough, the tough speak in code, at least on China’s Internet. It’s quitting time in China, and thousands of netizens are announcing they are leaving work “of their own volition.” But this happens every day. Why choose today to say so? 

Faced with overzealous censors, netizens on Weibo, China’s Twitter, are used to finding creative ways to express themselves. After former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun fled into the care of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu and was subsequently remanded to Beijing’s custody, he was described as receiving “vacation-style medical treatment.” The term quickly became an Internet meme, discussed in detail on Danwei.com.

Now netizens have a new meme after blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng, following a daring escape from house arrest to U.S. custody in Beijing, was released (or expelled) just hours ago from the U.S. embassy after staying there for six days. As Mark MacKinnon of the Globe and Mail reports, he was escorted by American officials to a hospital in the city’s Chaoyang district to reunite with his family.

So how did Chen depart? An official Chinese news release described Chen as “leaving of his own volition”  (自行离开). The four-character term has quickly caught fire in China’s social media, garnering over 340,000 tweets and rising to at least #30 on the list of trending key words. Yet within approximately two hours of its ascent, all searches for the term had been blocked, and its presence on the “hot words” list was over (see photographs below).

The life of a meme, with over 342,000 results for "leaving of own volition"...
...and the death of a meme. Just hours after coming to prominence, the term has been entirely blocked.

Although a number of netizens still appear mystified by the sudden appearance of this term of art, the majority seem to be in the know. One netizen wrote, “Ha ha, he [Chen] also left his rural home of his own volition.” Other netizens inserted themselves into the meme: “Today I went to the bathroom once, and then left of my own volition.” Another advertised his career path: “I plan to leave my corporation of my own volition.” And shopping? One wrote, “This afternoon, I spent six minutes in the supermarket, bought a bag of dumplings, then left of my own volition.”  

And Tea Leaf Nation’s nomination for most vivid use of the new meme goes to the following: “When I go, whether someone else has killed me or I’ve killed myself, please carve four characters on my tombstone —- 自行离开!”

An earlier meme related to Chen Guangcheng looked like this

One netizen provided a helpful guide moving forward: “A new phrase: XXX entered the U.S. XXX, stayed for XXX days and then left of their own volition.” It’s virtually certain the Chinese government hopes this to be of limited applicability. After the flights of Messrs Wang and Chen occurred within months of one another, the government is surely keen to avoid another loss of face. To that end, it recently demanded an apology from the United States (in Chinese), stressing in particular that the U.S. must “ensure that this sort of incident does not occur again.”

Many netizens expressed skepticism that Chen had in fact left American protection of his own will. One wrote, “I can’t believe that someone who took such trouble to escape would then leave the U.S. embassy of his own volition.” Another added, “Why … did he leave? Could he not stand the pressure from China? Could it be that someone threatened his family?” One simply sighed, “Ai, another is ‘leaving of his own volition’; coming on this eve of such high level talks, this is really awkward.”

Others took the opportunity to send kind (if oblique) wishes to Chen. One wrote, “I believe he did ‘leave of his own volition,’ because he said ‘I won’t leave China, my career is in China,’ etc. Wherever he is, I wish him safety.”

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.