David Wertime

How a Taiwanese Singer Became an Overnight Free-Speech Star in China

The star belts out a song. (Sing Gao/Flickr)

Annie Yi — a.k.a. Yi Nengjing, a.k.a. Inō Shizuka, and formerly Wu Jingyi — is a woman of many facets. Born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1969 to a political family with a history of persecution by the Kuomintang, the popular singer and actress has faced harsh online criticism for an extramarital affair and a failed marriage, and has clashed with Taiwanese tabloids.

Now, she faces perhaps her greatest test: The wrath of the Chinese government, and a possible ban from appearing before mainland Chinese audiences in the future.

It all started when Ms. Yi joined in the chorus of journalists, celebrities, and grassroots Web users decrying the recent spate of strong-arm media censorship, starting with newspaper Southern Weekly. Propaganda authorities recently fought back when they ordered all mainstream outlets to re-print a January 9 Global Times editorial labeling the voices championing media freedom as stooges of “foreign forces.” The next day, Global Times, always willing to back the Communist Party line, ran an opinion piece arguing that “media should be the watchdog for China’s national interests.”

That seemed to be the final straw for Ms. Yi. On her Sina Weibo microblogging account, she shared a coded message with her 6.5 million fans, attaching a photo of the Global Times editorial to make her message clear:

Good boy, watch that door. As long as we are here, this place belongs to us. So if anyone says to you that this place is his, bite him. Good boy, watch that door. We have knives and guns, no one dares to come, so you don’t even need to bite, just barking is enough. Do you hear that, you dogs who threaten others on the strength of your master’s power? If you threaten me, even if you’re not really a dog, you’re just like one. Good boy, I butchered another dog for you, here are their bones for you to chew on. I’m encouraging you because I’m proud of you.

The post struck a chord, getting re-tweeted over 36,000 times before it was deleted by censors.

Ms. Yi could have stopped there; after all, as a Taiwanese passport holder, she performs in mainland China only with the acquiesence of the People’s Republic’s authorities. And like many Taiwanese celebrities, Ms. Yi has shifted the focus of her career to the mainland, where the market is much more lucrative.

But there was a side to Yi that others may not have seen, eloquent and stridently political. It was enough to prompt one user to exclaim, “She’s not just a big-breasted bimbo!” Another wrote that despite Yi’s flighty reputation, “yesterday, because she said something public that made the higher reaches angry and may cause her to say goodbye to the Mainland for a time, people will truly remember her name. This is a good woman.”

After Yi’s initial post was deleted within half a day, the singer doubled down, continuing to lob verbal salvos at the authorities. One contained a poetic coded reference to the Southern Weekly, which in recent days has become a rallying point for free-speech advocates:

I’m not unaware that the south is already far away. So far that I can’t see the truth of it clearly, and all that remains is this moment of darkness. I’m not unaware that the south is already far away. That the many calls around us are already obviously to be [in vain]. A warning bell is sounding signaling the end of the world, but I can’t see the bell tower, it’s already fallen. All that remains is darkness after I’ve left the distant south.

Yi then added “[deleted, reposted]” at the end.

It quickly became clear that Yi was feeling the heat from authorities. In quick succession, she issued two defiant, prideful posts directed at her invisible tormenters. Yi first wrote:

Attacking my background is utterly useless…My family was a victim of the 228 Incident. My grandfather Yang Yuanding was the vice-head of Keelung City’s parliament [in Taiwan] and resisted the Japanese, getting arrested on three occasions. Yet he was shot by the Kuomintang six times and thrown in a river. Because of the White Terror, my mother lived a life of tragedy. After dictatorship ended, I didn’t feel hatred and cast my ballot for the Kuomintang. But I had a stronger belief: I knew the value of freedom. To oppose is not to become an enemy, but our conscience knows that good people who remain silent can perhaps become the allies of evil.

She quickly added:

Attacking my past marriage is also useless. Even if my grandfather had not been killed and my mother was not forced to flee her village, I would not have spent a youth without love, and I would have still believed love was consensual, and not one person belonging to another. Lives aren’t just lived in the moment; they come from our families, and from the political background in which our families exist. History is the same way; it includes the present, past, and future — the recorded past, the present we fight for, and the future we create. Only then is it worthwhile to live through great times.

By early evening on January 10 in China, the authorities had made formal contact with Yi. She wrote on her Weibo account, “I’m going to drink tea, hope it’s tasty.” Being invited to “drink tea” is a well-known euphemism among those Web users who stir up enough trouble online that authorities visit them in person.

As of January 11, it is reported on China’s social media that the promotion campaign for Yi’s new book in China was cancelled.

It’s too early to tell what will become of Annie Yi, one of a number of high-profile Chinese celebrities who has invited official blowback with vocal online support for free speech in the wake of the Southern Weekly incident. All of her tweets quoted above have been deleted, although they have been preserved by users who continue to share screen captures of her words. Many supporters have openly speculated about whether she will be banned from Weibo, or perhaps the Chinese mainland altogether. But many Web users have already made up their minds about one thing: They will never see Ms. Yi the same way again.

In another of her now-deleted posts, Yi seemed to prophesize an influence that outlasts even authority’s best efforts to thwart it:

“Eyes that have been covered can still perceive light; muffled ears have keener hearing when surrounded with silence; sealed mouths can learn ways of communicating without speaking; shackled hands can realize freedom; the buried dead can live forever.”

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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.
  • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

    Ms Yi is a ‘good woman’ for calling mainlanders ‘dogs’?

    So how good a man does this make Kong Qingdong?

    There will always be a double standard, I suppose. But I guess Kong Qingdong mustn’t be that good, because he didn’t call for Hongkongers who defended the bigoted actions of their countrymen to be ‘butchered’.

    • Stu

      The ‘dog’ reference is obviously to the Global Times acting as the government’s ‘watchdog’. No idea how you’re reading it as an attack on all mainland Chinese people.

      • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

        So tell me, Stu, how you interpret the sentence ‘你就仗著我吧,就算你不是真的狗,但你比狗還像樣。’ The first part I get is referring to the Global Times in the voice of the CCP, but the second part seems deliberately ambiguous as to whom she is speaking, and the shift in voice seems to make it her own voice speaking rather than the CCP’s.

        It sounded an awful lot to me like she was threatening the people who might have similar sentiments to that of the Global Times. Hardly the attitude of a ‘free-speech star’, to say the least.

        • BigCAD

          Cheers Matt, I think the dudes in the back of this CPC party van hold similar lofty ideals to the Global Times.


          Thank the Great Helmsman himself for beacons of virtue and righteousness like yourself willing to risk it all in order to prove your high level of Chinese grammer.

          • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

            Um, sure, whatever. And thanks to Deng Xiaoping for your high level of English spelling, I guess?

            ‘Grammar’, not ‘grammer’.

        • juhua

          No it doesn’t, maybe you’re not a native speaker but both instances of 狗 clearly refers to the same subject

          This is nothing like Kong Qingdong calling people in HK dogs. Your apologism has deeply biased roots.

          • http://www.facebook.com/metalheadpaladin Matt Cooper

            I’m not a native speaker. My wife is, and she was as confused as I was to what Ms Yi meant by the comment.