“It’s a shame it wasn’t you.” This comment, reposted thousands of times, came in response to an obituary posted by Fang Binxing on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. It may seem odd that the president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications should arouse such hatred in total strangers. But Fang is not just a university president–he is also the father of China’s Great Firewall.
The Great Firewall allows China’s government to censor websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and anything else it might deem dangerous, inappropriate, or embarrassing. Fang is its architect and most notable apologist. There is virtually no one as universally hated by Chinese netizens. In 2010 he was roundly mocked when he opened a Weibo account, and last year students threw eggs and shoes at him.
An homage, gone awry
It wasn’t until Thursday night that netizens suddenly began to repost a brief comment Fang made last month lamenting the passing of computer scientist Dong Zhanqiu (董占球). Since the comment function was disabled, netizens could only comment by reposting, and so they did–14,489 times as of earlier today, filling 725 pages of with the succinct five-character name of a popular song by singer Fish Leong: “It’s a Shame It Wasn’t You.”
Some netizens changed the wording up a bit. Wrote one, “Next time it will be you.” A few netizens came to Fang’s defense, saying, “You’re disrespecting my college president!” The vast majority of the comments, however, were “It’s a Shame it Wasn’t You.”
While bloggers and tweeters have been arrested and detained for less, there appears to be strength in numbers. Weibo users reposted each others’ reposts, creating chains of “It’s a shame it wasn’t you.” In the space of hours, the song even became a verb. Twitter user @tuotoo remarked, “Fang Binxing’s been ‘RT-it’s-a-shame-it-wasn’t-you’-ed on Weibo.”
The beauty of turning “It’s a Shame it Wasn’t You” into an attack on Fang Binxing is the difficulty of creating an outright ban on the practice. The song itself has been popular for years and is a karaoke staple. This creates a puzzle for censors—ban all mentions of the song, or let the insults stand.
Chinese language 2.0
Modern online Chinese is full of similarly creative ways of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with officialdom. Often, officials’ own words are used against them. When a train crashed in Wenzhou last year, Railway Ministry spokesman Wang Yongping famously defended the government’s line that a widely documented attempted cover-up had not occurred, saying, “Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.” This line then became a sardonic meme for blind obeisance to the party line, and continues to appear from time to time in the comments sections of various news articles that promote particularly unbelievable Party lines.
Whether being it’s-a-shame-it-wasn’t-you’ed will still be a “thing” months from now remains to be seen. Language is always changing, especially in the cat and mouse game of censorship. For now, at least, the song plays on.