David Wertime

Netizens Not Sold on Possible Future Leader Wang Yang

Wang Yang, holding his own umbrella

First it was the prodigal melon; now it’s the airborne pepper. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, a discussion recently erupted about potential high-leader-in-waiting Wang Yang after a university student in Guangdong (@思想聚焦) recalled a 2006 story in which Mr. Yang threw a farm-fresh pepper at a subordinate.

As the story goes, while party chief of Chongqing in 2006, Wang Yang, now Party Secretary of Guangdong province and known for his liberalism among China’s leaders, visited a Chongqing farmer’s market in an area suffering acute drought. Wang asked questions of the merchants while they sat at their posts. One of Wang’s minders angrily demanded that the farmers stand while speaking with such a high official. In response, the story goes, Wang Yang retrieved a pepper from a nearby basket and hurled it at the subordinate. Wang explained later, “We are public servants, we should be the ones standing.”

This superficially innocuous story has garnered over 2,300 comments on Sina Weibo, perhaps partly because netizens have no easy way to discuss Wang Yang, whose name is currently unsearchable on the site. In a country thus hungry for information about its leaders, every official’s move and word is scrutinized. Wang is no exception.

An undated photo of Wang's accomplice

The netizen consensus: If the story is true, it’s because Wang is a good actor, probably because he harbors ambitions of being elevated to the Party Standing Committee, the group of nine who run China. Although some commenters accuse those skeptical of Wang as being mere “50-cent” shills for erstwhile rival Bo Xilai, the more likely explanation is that Chinese citizens, deeply suspicious of many of their officials, can’t seem to believe that Wang is as publicly minded as he claims to be. “If it’s real,” @大国小民_律师 wrote, “then Wang indeed belongs to the enlightened party.” But many thought it was all “a show.”

“Successfully acted,” @_华叔_ wrote in mock congratulations. “A two man show!” @吉8猫扑 wrote of what he called the “Chongqing little pepper incident.” “Don’t be fooled so easily,” @兴华怒放 wrote. “If those in power really had this concept of governance, would it be so hard for commoners to protect their rights and interests?” 

This collective sneer partly traces to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. For years, he has played the warm and fuzzy side of China’s central government, the Yang to President Hu Jintao’s icily aloof Yin. He has repeatedly expressed his desire for faster reform, only to get nowhere. Many Chinese have begun to suspect Wen himself is merely a good thespian, rather than a good man flailing within a rigid system. @shecalls put it more succinctly: “Making shows, and nothing else; this is the common disease of China’s so-called ‘good officials.’” 

If Wang’s goal is to win the people’s heart, there are dangers. Power in China tends to corrupt, and quickly. Bo Xilai tried to shortcut his way to power with neo-Maoist “sing red” campaigns targeted at Chongqing’s commoners, but his demagoguery backfired badly after he was sacked for (dizzyingly severe) corruption. Netizens heard the “high-key” echoes. @小树的老公不是大树 sighed, “Studying Bo’s road; a cult of personality.” “Another turn of death by flattery,” @jeremiahsky warned. @小生柯南 held out a scintilla of hope, writing obliquely that [he] had once hoped for Bo to lead China, but now hopes the same for Wang; “I hope I have not been mistaken again.” {{Chinese}} [[Chinese]] 那时希望不厚来主政俺家乡,后来不想了;现在想汪督来,希望不要再希望错. [[Chinese]]

Even if Wang’s sanctimony about public-mindedness was planned, or at least cynically seized, his choice of airborne produce to express it was instructive. “Using brutality to stop brutality; interesting,” @帝国反击作战 wrote. “One, he wasted a pepper” @law081 wrote, “and two, he was violent to a subordinate!” In this instance, Wang may have been channeling popular anger toward rude and crude government officials, but in doing so he seemed to demonstrate many of those traits himself.

Wang, perhaps explaining the pepper's trajectory

So what of the fate of that poor pepper? A surprising number of netizens cared, perhaps because it was not long ago that China was short enough on food that frittering it was strongly discouraged. Many decried Wang’s waste of a pepper, with several suggesting that Wang compensate the merchant for the illegally confiscated pepper. One even suggested the surrounding merchants be compensated for the emotional trauma of witnessing the assault. 

Perhaps Wang could have done more with less. In a country where even relatively minor leaders are chauffeured about in black luxury cars, Wang’s unselfconsciously holding his own umbrella seemed to invite more genuine admiration. @张稔 pointed out with no apparent irony, “That appears to be his own umbrella.” @华夏暗剑再现 added, “At least he’s got his own umbrella and can take care of himself. One ‘like.’”

With China’s upcoming “S-election” at the 18th National Party Congress not far away, more stories like this (not to mention more netizen howls) are sure to follow. As @欧蚊 observed, “It seems some people want to be promoted. I bet there will be more and more of this story and that story.” For China’s government, this means things will only get more tense. For China’s netizens and observers, this means things will only get more interesting. 

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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.