David Wertime

How a Run-Down Government Building Became the Hottest Item on China’s Social Web

The ramshackle Songming government headquarters, according to the People’s Daily.

This article also appeared on ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

It is perhaps a sign of the times in China that an image of nothing more than a ramshackle county government building could echo so widely. Since its posting on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, hours before New Year’s Eve, the image (see right) has been shared nearly 70,000 times by Web users.

China’s cynical netizens have reason to be moved. The images, posted by user @思想聚焦, purport to show that seemingly rare beast: A well-meaning, conscientious local government.

Living like a snail, not a king

The post refers to a December 2011 Chinese-language article run by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily about the officials in Songming County in China’s southern Yunnan province. The article describes how officials there have worked–and in some cases, lived–for years out of a ’70s era building, in rooms so small and packed with desks that the reporter could scarcely find a place to sit and ask questions. The article’s title refers to the building as a woju, a term which means “humble abode” and literally refers to a dwelling fit for a snail.

Fortunately, the People’s Daily reports, students in Songming have it much better. Local Communist Party Committee Secretary Wang Chunyan told the reporter that since 2007, the county has plowed the majority of its revenue into 44 primary and middle schools, uniformly outfitting them with facilities exceeding the level found in many of China’s universities.

The article quotes Secretary Wang as saying, “There are some cases where you lose money…and the numbers don’t look good, but in the long term [it pays off handsomely].” The report notes that Songming’s revenues have more than doubled since 2008.

We’ll believe it when we see it

Online reaction to the red-hot post reveals much about the state of public discourse in China. Particularly noteworthy is just how cautiously Web users have embraced this apparent good news. Given the People’s Daily deep-red Communist provenance, many have lauded and questioned the report in the same breath.

While some users claimed to have visited the town and seen the building with their own eyes, others have requested further proof. Freelance reporter @尹鸿伟记者 exhorted users to “wait until I have time to go check this out, then I’ll return and tell people with hearts whether it’s true or false.” Many others couched their praise in the subjunctive, suspecting either the report itself or the Songming government of playing up its relative poverty. @白禹欣 wrote, “Even if it’s just a show, I can’t help but praise this loudly…we really need to advocate for this way of doing things!”

Some expressed skepticism because the news simply seemed too good to be true. @任言可微 wrote, “Too bad [this] is as rare as a phoenix feather or a unicorn horn.” To @汉旗飘飘万里江, the fact that “This is a county in China” was enough to explain why the news seemed incredible.

A picture is worth a thousand disgruntled netizens

While snapping photos of buildings to gauge government largesse may be simplistic, it’s also clever. In a country not famed for transparency, a local government’s priorities can sometimes be written on its face–that is, the size and relative lavishness of its buildings compared to their surroundings. In early December, widespread anger erupted in the Chinese blogosphere after the government of eastern Jinan city built itself a gigantic headquarters rumored to cost 4 billion RMB (about US$640 million), an office building second only to the U.S. Pentagon in size.

Images of a Jinan city government building, including this one, ricocheted online. (Via Weibo)

Days later, the local government in Guangshan county enraged netizens with its seeming indifference to the 22 school children attacked with a knife just hours before the Newtown school killings in the U.S. In response, widely-followed microblogger Charles Xue posted images of Guangshan headquarters he found online, writing, “I heard a reporter say that your government building is extremely dignified, [so] I went online to find some images of the Guangshan government building. Friends on the Web, have a look; does this look like the government building for a poor county?” That post was shared over 111,000 times.

Perhaps encouraged by the response, Xue, no stranger to the power of crowd-sourcing, wrote shortly thereafter, “I have a suggestion: Among China’s 2,800 counties, 681 are impoverished. Can everyone please post photo [collages] showing those counties’ government buildings, along with local schools and farmer houses, on Weibo [so] we can know how taxpayer funds are being used to fight poverty? Let’s see how many photos we can get up there! Can everyone please take great efforts to support this and retweet it like crazy!”

Netizens shared the call to action over 74,000 times, although it is not clear how many photo collages ultimately emerged. @思想聚焦‘s post could in some ways be viewed as an attenuated response–perhaps even a retort–to Xue. Significantly, @部落的远方 complained that “mainstream media doesn’t tell us” about the “well regulated” places in China. That is incorrect, but perhaps mainstream media is still learning how to tailor its messages so that they resonate online, as well as on print covers and the airways. In this case, the People’s Daily had active Weibo users ready to help.

Chinese officialdom, 2.0?

It’s clear by now that the Chinese blogosphere can destroy officials’ careers in a fell swoop. Observers may now learn whether it can elevate them, as well. Mr. Wang is gaining new fans, including those who praise him for evidently sticking to principles despite pressures and temptations. @无调粉 worried that “this kind of official…gets eliminated” in the end. @小鹿爱心Lumei爱动物 wrote, “It’s hard being a clean official. I hope you and your family are safe; good things come to good people.”

[Correction: An earlier version of this article discussed the People's Daily article in light of Xi Jinping's recent leadership. However, the article (not the related Weibo post) was published in late 2011, not late 2012. We regret the error.]

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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.
  • thomas

    Good article!

    • tealeafnation

      Thanks, Thomas!