This article also appeared on ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
An active Beijing-based micro-blogger named Dongdong Wang (@東東旺) recently tweeted this image on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter:
At first glance, it doesn’t look like much: Outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao (left) and outgoing President Hu Jintao (right) appear to share a laugh following a day’s work at the recent 18th Party Congress. It’s an eminently human moment–and therein lies the rub. Wang wrote, “I really like this picture. Why doesn’t our media give us more images of leaders like this one, instead of always making them look so old-fashioned? (In fact, our country has not become rigid at all; could it be that [our] media has scared itself half to death, and become rigid on its own?)”
Since its posting on November 23, this simple image has been retweeted over 103,000 times. But perhaps chary of the discussion that would result, censors suspended the threaded comment function on the post. That means that Weibo users do not have an easy way to comment directly on the image or Wang’s assertion, which means no ad hoc discussion forum can form around this very resonant image.
The decision to suspend comments on an individual post is not particularly rare. But it’s still no small matter. Tea Leaf Nation has long viewed Weibo’s threaded comment function as the platform’s “best, most democratizing feature.” In fact, China’s government took aim at precisely this feature in April, suspending comments across Weibo in early April in an effort to to put its foot down following online rumors of a high-level coup.
It’s ironic that censors would revert to such tactics when faced with an image that could only burnish Chinese leadership in the public’s eyes. Perhaps Wang’s critique of the mainstream media singed the wrong sets of ears, or perhaps censors worried commenters would take the chance to share opinions less charitable toward authorities than Wang’s. In all fairness, the image itself was possibly leaked by a photojournalist with the credentials to access the 18th Congress who became frustrated with the bar on publishing anything beyond the most stoic fare. At least the image was seen far and wide in the Chinese blogosphere, although for Wen’s and (especially Hu’s) would-be image-makers, it’s too little, too late.