Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest newspaper, maintained a very active and high-profile presence on China’s social media platforms. Its witty, playful and lighthearted commentaries attracted hundreds of thousands followers on Sina Weibo alone. Its fans often refer to the paper’s Weibo account (@朝日新闻中文网) by the nickname “Asahi-kun” — “kun” being the Japanese honorific used among friends.
On July 17, Asahi-kun vanished, to the astonishment of its Chinese friends. Asahi Shimbun’s longtime illustrator and Weibo operator @王左中右, who left Asahi Shimbun in March due to “force majeure,” tweeted,
Around 11 am this morning, Asahi Shimbun Chinese portal’s account on Sina, Tencent, Sohu and Netease microblogging platforms could not be accessed. As of now the accounts have been deleted. The reason behind it is unclear.
@王左中右 later followed up with another tweet, “An order from above.” The original tweet was retweeted more than 3,700 times with over 1,100 comments.
China’s Internet users were stunned by the sad turn of fortune for Asahi-kun at the hands of China’s censors. Several foreign media outlets maintain Chinese language portals and are very active on social media, including Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. The notable exception is the New York Times — the Grey Lady’s newly-launched Chinese language portal was blocked by the Great Firewall after the paper published an investigative report on the family wealth of then-Premier Wen Jiabao.
If the censorship of New York Times is swift retribution for unfavorable reporting, the fate of Asahi Shimbun in China is not so easily explained. Many Internet users are scratching their heads. @夜叉娑罗树 tweeted, “Asahi-kun did not say anything out of line.” Many users lit virtual candles in remembrance of Asahi-kun.
Some blame a recent column on Asahi Shimbun entitled “Take a Knife to Opaque Institutions” that discussed the liquidity crisis in the Chinese banking system, but the column does not seem offensive. A more likely culprit is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a couple of disputed islands near Diaoyu Islands (called Senkaku Islands in Japan). Several Internet users pointed out the irony that Asahi Shimbun is considered by many to lean left on Japan’s political spectrum and the paper usually takes a relatively liberal (read: pro-China) stance on contentious issues between China and Japan, including the row over Diaoyu Islands.
The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai’s official Weibo account was deleted in July 2012, with no explanation offered.
Perhaps the down to earth style that made Asahi Shimbun such a success in China also paved way for its downfall. One user offered his conjecture, “Some people want the Chinese public to hate Japan, but Asahi Shimbun makes Chinese people hate Japan less, therefore…” Another joked, “Our Party is mighty indeed. It will be a matter of days before it wipes Japan off the map, on Weibo.”
One user commented,
Asahi Shimbun’s Chinese portal got harmonized? I really think our Party is too narrow-minded. If some content is not appropriate, you can harmonize it, but why harmonize the whole account? Also, Asahi is quite pro-China, and has quite some history with China (its banner uses a Tang-dynasty calligrapher’s work). If this kind of foreign media cannot be tolerated in China, doesn’t that give people an opportunity to criticize our country for being too closed off?
The capricious nature of censorship is one of its most powerful weapons, and Asahi Shimbun’s fate could serve as a warning to all media outlets that operate in China, foreign and domestic, that try to use their social media presence to stay close to the readers by pushing the envelope, even just a little bit. People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s paper of record, is notable for having a split personality in print and on social media, with the latter being colloquial, empathetic and even funny.
One Internet user commented on Asahi-kun’s untimely demise, “With the way this thing is going, People’s Daily will be next.”