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Liz Carter senior contributor

Netizens Reflect As One Chinese Woman Touches Heaven, Another Hell

Liu Yang, China's first female taikonaut

History has been made. On Saturday, Liu Yang became China’s first female taikonaut when the Shenzhou 9 launched into outer space. This is the first manned docking attempt for China’s space exploration program and a major milestone for the country. According to a spokesperson for the space program, People’s Liberation Army fighter pilot Liu Yang’s selection “showcases the positive image of Chinese women.” Liu Yang herself stated that it was a great honor to represent the women of China.

Meanwhile, a very different story made waves earlier this week in Chinese social media. On June 2, Shaanxi resident Feng Jianmei was forced to undergo a late-term abortion of her seven-month-old fetus because she could not pay a 40,000 RMB (about US$6,000) fine. One week later, a graphic image of Feng lying on a hospital bed next to the dead fetus caught fire on China’s Internet, leading to the suspension of three local officials and a high-level investigation.

The contrast was not lost on China’s netizens. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, @假装在纽约 advanced a widely-discussed comparison of the two women. He posted an image featuring a smiling Liu Yang at top, and below, Feng Jianmei and the aborted fetus in the hospital. Below this image, he wrote:

“We can send a female taikonaut out into space, and we can also forcefully abort the fetus of a seven-months-pregnant woman from the countryside. The stark contrast between the fates of two women, 33-year-old Liu Yang and 22-year-old [sic] Feng Jianmei, is the clearest illustration of the torn state of this nation. Glory and dreams illuminate disgrace and despair, cutting-edge technology exists alongside the shameless trampling of the people. Rockets fly into the heavens while morals reach new lows, the nation rises while the people kneel in submission. This is how the best of times meets the worst of times.” {{Chinese}}[[Chinese]]假装在纽约 : 我们可以把一个女航天员送上天,也可以强行堕掉一个村妇7个月的胎儿。33岁的刘洋和22岁的冯建梅,是这个国家撕裂现状最好的写照-—光荣与梦想映照着耻辱与绝望,最尖端的科技伴随着对人最无耻的践踏,飞船上天而道德探底,大国崛起而万民下跪,最好的时代就这样遇上最坏的时代。[[Chinese]][The post was retweeted here by @wenyunchao before its deletion.]

Shortly thereafter, famous blogger Han Han (@韩寒) reposted this to his millions of followers, with a short comment of his own: “One country, two words: torn apart.”

Defending the one-child policy

Of course, not everyone was on the same page.  Wrote @bluedawn王松岳, “Overly positive propaganda and overly critical comments are both forms of self-deception.” Some expressed grudging support for the one-child policy as a “necessary evil,” while others dismissed the Feng-Liu comparison, stating that Liu Yang became a taikonaut through her own hard work, while Feng Jianmei broke the law by trying to have a second child that could become a burden on society. 

Some defended the one-child policy, but almost no one defended Feng's horrid treatment

Some of the discussion centered around the larger implications of Feng Jianmei’s situation. @moi易狂躁, asked, “If you can’t come up with 40,000 yuan, how can you afford to do a good job of raising a child? If after this, all you have to do is hide for seven months and you can have a third or fourth kid, then everyone’s going to hide, and how are you going to control the population?”

China’s central government may not share such sentiments. While the one-child policy is still national policy, in truth many suspect China’s central government no longer stands 100% behind this approach, already relaxing it under many circumstances in response to China’s aging population and work force. It is perhaps a sign of the changing tides on this issue that such online discussion was allowed to take place over days, without too much meddling by censors.

China to censors: Take five

Indeed, many were surprised that the discussion was not censored immediately. @宅起的懒人wrote, “Has this really not been deleted?” and  @罗晓明 asked, “Can we still comment?” @刘三Lausan simply wrote “Test.” “Seven-months-pregnant woman subjected to forced abortion” was the number-one trending topic on Sina Weibo, and the comment by @假装在纽约 was reposted at least 70,000 times in less than 24 hours. It was only some time later that the original comment, and Han Han’s reply, were deleted. Unlike netizen @作业本’s wholesale deletion after a tweet related to the Tiananmen uprising, both the original poster and Han Han still had accounts this morning.

Nevertheless, forced abortions remain rife in rural China, as provincial and local governments under pressure to maintain certain birth rates take drastic measures to prevent and end illegal pregnancies. It was only after Feng Jianmei’s picture went viral, after all, that provincial and national authorities announced their investigation and the China Daily publicly reported that officials had apologized to her.

A country of sharp contradictions

Shenzhou 9, ready for launch. China reached new heights and new lows in the same week

As Chinese social media exposes more horrific stories like this, netizens shudder to think what must have happened in years past under cover of silence. @荆棘鸟那棵树 pondered, “What about before? Too terrifying.” But social media has also brought to light the many sides of China–including both rampant human rights violations and the economically powerful, technologically advanced face of a developing nation in transition. For many, this vision of a country with so many contradictions is a source of anger and frustration, engendering widespread desire for greater transparency, accountability, and responsiveness.

The diversity of opinion and content on Sina Weibo–even in the face of persistent and known censorship–shows that China is not a country torn apart so much as it is many countries at once. Its achievements do not make its failures acceptable, while its failures do not change the fact that it has achieved so much. As Liu Yang makes history, she will to some extent represent all of China’s women, many of whom will never leave their provinces, let alone this earth. To certain observers, this is a waste of taxpayer money; to others, a feat that will inspire millions of young Chinese girls. Whatever the final resolution, such open debate can only be good for China, not to mention the rest of our little planet.

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Liz Carter

Liz Carter is a DC-based China-watcher and the author and translator of a number of Chinese-English textbooks available on amazon.cn. She and her cat Desmond relocated to DC from Beijing, where she studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University, after learning that HBO was planning to adapt Game of Thrones for television. She writes at abigenoughforest.com and tweets from @withoutdoing.
  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    diverse voices, heard widely .. what more would one want in a country? :-)

  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    diverse voices, heard widely .. what more would one want in a country? :-)

  • Pingback: Today's China Readings June 17, 2012 | Sinocism

  • Archie

    Great coverage. I often question how a country so poor in terms of GDP per head prioritizes space travel above clean drinking water, improved social security, strengthened food safety and a litany of other areas of concern that should surely be beefed up before some face gaining space program.

    • Odowdle

      Had no idea I would read an article like this from China….at least there are human rights movements seeking to wake up the citizenry.   Thanks to Elizabeth for such an informative, well written article…..just like her parents!  Oscar

    • Ruby

      I don’t think lack of clean drinking water is such a wide issue (it wasn’t a problem even in rural areas of China that I visted). Space program has security and strategic importance, it’s not just a ‘face gaining’ program. You sound like you’ve neber been to China. I agree that there are many areas that need improvement- as is the case in US, but a country has to put efforts and resources on different important fronts.

      • Archie

        Just a quote form one of many Chinese sources detailing the por state of such an essential element to human life (May 2012):
        “Poor safety standards, uneven enforcement lead to widespread pollution.Tap water supplied to millions of residents in hundreds of Chinese cities has failed to pass water quality tests in a recent nationwide survey, official media reported.
        At least 1,000 providers of urban tap water failed the tests, which were carried out by the Urban Water Quality Monitoring Center under the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in Beijing in 2009, the Century Weekly magazine reported this week.It cited the monitoring center’s chief engineer Song Lanhe as saying that water quality hadn’t improved much since the survey, either.
        “Among more than 4,000 water plants we surveyed, we found the water provided by over 1,000 plants was disqualified,” the magazine quoted Song as saying.”I am not authorized to tell you the exact figure,” Song said.Water resources expert Wu Yegang said he was unsurprised by the findings.
        “China’s drinking water has become an extremely dangerous matter,” Wu told RFA’s Mandarin service. “There is so much pollution of the rivers and lakes, and also the groundwater, that this isn’t a surprise at all.”He said the report sounded entirely credible. “This is a very real issue,” he said. “There has to be a nationwide system for monitoring the water providers, and for publishing water quality figures at regular intervals.””This is the most basic requirement.””

        I’d say clean drinking water for a population that has the odds stacked against it in terms of being able to be provided for in terms of food security has some serious “security and strategic” importance.
        I’ve lived in China for 5 years, and in none of the 4 cities of lived in did any of the locals dare to drink water from a tap. These are some of Chinese most developed cities. It is clearly an issue.
        Perhaps a space program does have some strategic importance, but I’d have thought dragging the remaining hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty first, and building up a social security system the citizens can rely on would be more essential than blasting rockets into space – rockets that are vastly behind the technology of any US or Russian space programs, and whose technological spillover is going to be very limited because the technology has already spilt over.
        I saw a China Daily piece try to defend the program to. The best they could come up with was that Chinese should enjoy the benefits of the program. The best they could do was say there would be benefits in osteoporosis treatment and in microwave foods. Seriously!
        That’s good for those who can afford hospital treatment for such conditions, and you could also argue that it’d be good for those with microwaves: conversely, you could say that microwave food is not a good thing at all.
        It’s you who sounds like you’ve been in China too long. 
        Though, funnily, my Chinese colleagues and university professors, who have been here all their lives, are the ones who have driven my ideas to represent the above opinions. So maybe there’s another reason for your support of such a premature waste of money??

  • Archie

    Great coverage. I often question how a country so poor in terms of GDP per head prioritizes space travel above clean drinking water, improved social security, strengthened food safety and a litany of other areas of concern that should surely be beefed up before some face gaining space program.

    • Odowdle

      Had no idea I would read an article like this from China….at least there are human rights movements seeking to wake up the citizenry.   Thanks to Elizabeth for such an informative, well written article…..just like her parents!  Oscar

    • Ruby

      I don’t think lack of clean drinking water is such a wide issue (it wasn’t a problem even in rural areas of China that I visted). Space program has security and strategic importance, it’s not just a ‘face gaining’ program. You sound like you’ve neber been to China. I agree that there are many areas that need improvement- as is the case in US, but a country has to put efforts and resources on different important fronts.

      • Archie

        Just a quote form one of many Chinese sources detailing the por state of such an essential element to human life (May 2012):
        “Poor safety standards, uneven enforcement lead to widespread pollution.Tap water supplied to millions of residents in hundreds of Chinese cities has failed to pass water quality tests in a recent nationwide survey, official media reported.
        At least 1,000 providers of urban tap water failed the tests, which were carried out by the Urban Water Quality Monitoring Center under the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in Beijing in 2009, the Century Weekly magazine reported this week.It cited the monitoring center’s chief engineer Song Lanhe as saying that water quality hadn’t improved much since the survey, either.
        “Among more than 4,000 water plants we surveyed, we found the water provided by over 1,000 plants was disqualified,” the magazine quoted Song as saying.”I am not authorized to tell you the exact figure,” Song said.Water resources expert Wu Yegang said he was unsurprised by the findings.
        “China’s drinking water has become an extremely dangerous matter,” Wu told RFA’s Mandarin service. “There is so much pollution of the rivers and lakes, and also the groundwater, that this isn’t a surprise at all.”He said the report sounded entirely credible. “This is a very real issue,” he said. “There has to be a nationwide system for monitoring the water providers, and for publishing water quality figures at regular intervals.””This is the most basic requirement.””

        I’d say clean drinking water for a population that has the odds stacked against it in terms of being able to be provided for in terms of food security has some serious “security and strategic” importance.
        I’ve lived in China for 5 years, and in none of the 4 cities of lived in did any of the locals dare to drink water from a tap. These are some of Chinese most developed cities. It is clearly an issue.
        Perhaps a space program does have some strategic importance, but I’d have thought dragging the remaining hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty first, and building up a social security system the citizens can rely on would be more essential than blasting rockets into space – rockets that are vastly behind the technology of any US or Russian space programs, and whose technological spillover is going to be very limited because the technology has already spilt over.
        I saw a China Daily piece try to defend the program to. The best they could come up with was that Chinese should enjoy the benefits of the program. The best they could do was say there would be benefits in osteoporosis treatment and in microwave foods. Seriously!
        That’s good for those who can afford hospital treatment for such conditions, and you could also argue that it’d be good for those with microwaves: conversely, you could say that microwave food is not a good thing at all.
        It’s you who sounds like you’ve been in China too long. 
        Though, funnily, my Chinese colleagues and university professors, who have been here all their lives, are the ones who have driven my ideas to represent the above opinions. So maybe there’s another reason for your support of such a premature waste of money??

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  • Ruby Siam

    Thank you for your informative article, Ms. Carter. Why relocate to DC just because of Game of Throens, is HBO or DVD of the show not available in China?

    • ebcarter

      Sorry I just saw this! I am mostly kidding about Game of Thrones (though I’ve loved it so far). I’m in DC at the moment for work and because I love the city :) .

  • Ruby Siam

    Thank you for your informative article, Ms. Carter. Why relocate to DC just because of Game of Throens, is HBO or DVD of the show not available in China?

    • ebcarter

      Sorry I just saw this! I am mostly kidding about Game of Thrones (though I’ve loved it so far). I’m in DC at the moment for work and because I love the city :) .

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  • Anzia

    I remember thinking this was ironic, too…

  • Anzia

    I remember thinking this was ironic, too…