To pick out three similar but unrelated incidents on Weibo and call them a trend is to risk forfeiting one’s right to say anything about the social media site ever again, except some things so defy responsible behavior that they deserve to be on the receiving end themselves.
Roughly two weeks ago, Zhou Yan, a liberal journalist who works for Sichuan TV, challenged Wu Danhong, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, to a duel at Chaoyang Park in Beijing over statements by Wu suggesting the pollution levels at the controversial, and now-closed, molybdenum copper plant in Shifang, Sichuan, were not as high as the protestors in Shifang had claimed. Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, caught wind, and a handful of netizens showed up to cheer on their respective combatants. Even artist-dissident Ai Weiwei happened to stroll through the park in the midst of the fighting. When encouraged to join in, he politely declined. (Footage of the proceedings can be found here.)
It isn’t the first time Wu had found himself in such a situation. Last October, he and media personality Yao Bo agreed to settle their differences of opinion, as reflected in their Weibo posts, over a duel at a local gas station. Neither man showed up, leaving the netizens who did quite disappointed. For those keeping score, at least Wu saved a little face this first time, posting a picture of himself with an employee at the gas station shortly after the scheduled time of the fight to prove that he had indeed shown up. Not to be outdone, Yao posted a picture of himself holding a wooden sword at the same gas station. Freud must have something to say about this.
Wu asserted in both fights that his purpose was to teach respect for the law (according to his supporters, through a public lecture). Whether or not Wu, a suspected “50-center” (Internet trolls on government payroll), is being disingenuous, the Global Times was not amused. Despite being ostensibly in Wu’s ideological camp, the conservative newspaper had these harsh words for all parties involved: “Views can be provocative, but they should be presented in a rational way…The title ‘intellectual’ has now become a sarcastic term.”
Given that the most vocal intellectuals, especially if you count the opinion leaders on Weibo among their number, are liberal, it is no surprise that Global Times is all too happy to discredit them. Fair or not, though, the Fox News of China has a point. Intellectual discourse in China and the place of the public intellectual in Chinese society have ballooned on the backs of powerful new platforms, but the rush has not allowed for a smooth adjustment period.
To be a modern Chinese intellectual is no longer a profession, it is an identity. In most media-saturated cultures, this is nothing new. To quote the late Christopher Hitchens, who knows something about this topic, “To be a public intellectual is in some sense something that you are, and not so much something that you do.” For someone wholly devoted to ideas and their expression, life as performance art is an inevitable byproduct. What is different in the age of Weibo is that the performance can never really be turned off—not if an intellectual is earnest about being a part of the conversation, which is really his only required sustenance. With the ability to easily follow a Weibo user’s history of posts, that user’s persona becomes all the more complete and exacerbates an already tempting illusion of how valid comprehensive personal investment in the Internet can be.
Growing pains are never fun to watch, but if the intellectual acquires any relief, it is that Weibo’s demands apply equally to all, and he can seem like the reasonable, or at least not the worst, one.
Earlier in June, Kai-fu Lee, founding president of Google China and prominent investor in Chinese start-ups, called out “Only You,” a popular Chinese reality show in which job candidates are judged by twelve managers for potential job offers, for degrading its contestants. Shi Xiaoyan, a judge on the show, called for a duel with Lee at a Starbucks in Beijing. Not surprisingly, Shi showed up (and posted a picture of a Starbucks sign to prove it) but Lee chose to ignore her challenge.
The fact that people would actually invite their cyber-antagonists to settle their differences physically is an indication of just how deep netizens’ disconnect with reality, already revealed by the rumor-mongering on Weibo, runs. In America’s Internet society, it is not uncommon for people to agree to meet in person after first meeting online, but such meetings are usually meant to solidify the relationship, not to drive an even deeper wedge into it. Ultimately, a cyber-relationship is really just that, and one wonders at the nature of an ecosystem in which members try to destroy something that is arguably nothing.
In its efforts to crack down on Weibo posts, one can sense that the Chinese government is not just trying to suppress information but the origin of that information as well, as though the way to mute the id was to stop the expression of it. If a hypothetical Freud had no interest in chiming in before, all bets are off now.