Recent Media Gaffes Say Quiet Parts Out Loud on Sensitive History and Current Anxiety

By inadvertently “saying the quiet part out loud,” three recent media gaffes have touched off public debate on questions usually left unspoken. For some Chinese social media users, these blunders have provided an opportunity to discuss the problems of wage stagnation, official corruption or indifference, politically sensitive dates, and the paradoxes of online censorship and self-censorship.

One gaffe involved state media outlet People’s Daily censoring a video it had produced to promote the upcoming Asian Games, which will be held from September 23-October 8 in Hangzhou. The video, “A Literary Exploration of Hangzhou,” contained two classical poems with politically awkward subtexts that the producers had apparently overlooked. One of the poems, containing references to “June” and “four seasons” had been used by some activists to get around censorship of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. As Helen Davidson reported for the Guardian, the other poem that raised eyebrows was a thinly-veiled satire of corrupt and callous officialdom:

Written in the 12th century, it is interpreted as a criticism of the Song Dynasty rulers, accusing corrupt officials of fleeing troubled lands to Hangzhou, and ignoring the struggles and crises of regular people while they drunkenly enjoy their own lives.

The poem itself is widely known and not censored, but commenters noted its inclusion suggested the video producers hadn’t realised the descriptions of people partying in Hangzhou was political satire.

[…] The video containing both poems was quickly taken down, but not before it was viewed at least 130,000 times across the People’s Daily and another state media account, according to censorship monitoring site, Free Weibo. Several other accounts also shared the video. A hashtag promoted alongside it no longer returns any results. [Source]

The video and its subsequent censorship was met with mirth by social media users, some of whom joked that it “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” and was a classic “low-level red, high-level black” failed attempt at nationalist propaganda. Although the poems themselves are included in school textbooks and are not censored, their political subtext reminded some online users of the Li Jiaqi paradox, whereby people stumble upon censored, forbidden topics, unaware of their sensitivity because of the success of earlier censorship. (Another aspect of the paradox is that widespread government censorship may draw attention to topics that people were previously unaware of.) The paradox takes its name from e-commerce host Li Jiaqi, who was banned from live-streaming for four months after he unwisely chose to hawk a tank-shaped ice-cream cake on June 3, 2022, apparently unaware of the dangerous optics of a tank-like confection on the eve of the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

Another gaffe occurred when e-commerce host Zhong Can (中灿), during a livestream on the agricultural sales platform Eastern Selection, declared that September 18 was “a good day.” After horrified viewers complained that September 18 was the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident that paved the way for Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Zhong Can and the platform issued profuse apologies for their mistake and explained that he had been referring to the anniversary of his first e-commerce livestream on the platform. They also promised to use the incident as a lesson to “strengthen internal ideological education.” CDT Chinese editors have archived some comments about the incident from Weibo and Twitter, a selection of which are translated below:

萝卜叹气:You boneheads, don’t you know what September 18 represents for the Chinese people? Everyone in the audience is going to suspect the host of being a “walking 500K” [a foreign spy, worth a 500,000 yuan cash reward].

清清浅浅倾心:This gaffe is much more serious than Li Jiaqi’s!

野马见草原:Isn’t this hurting the feelings of the Chinese people? Is this why they’re revising the Public Security Administration Punishments Law?

清流滑动:And June 18 is a National Shopping Festival? The revolutionary hero Qu Qiubai was martyred on June 18. The people who invented the June 18 shopping festival should be arrested.

xiaoemo06746629: If you want to avoid political taboos, you must understand every political taboo. There is no solution to this paradox. [Chinese]

By far the most attention-grabbing gaffe was committed during a September 10 livestream by Li Jiaqi (李佳琦), the wealthy and popular e-commerce celebrity for whom the “Li Jiaqi paradox” was named. Dubbed the “Lipstick King” for his proven ability to sell billions of yuan worth of cosmetics, Li has earned a loyal following among online shoppers for his helpful, friendly, and frank reviews of various beauty products. But in this instance, when some livestream viewers complained that the 79 yuan ($10.80 U.S. dollar) eyebrow pencil he was selling was too expensive, Li seemed to lose his patience, vociferously defending the cosmetic brand (Florasis) and insisting that the price had remained unchanged for many years. At one point, Li began to rant at his viewing audience, earning him an incredulous and worried look from his co-host. “How is that expensive?” Li complained peevishly. “Sometimes the fault lies with you. If you haven’t gotten a raise all these years, are you working hard enough?”

In response to this viewer-blaming, Li was inundated with critical comments and negative press coverage. Despite his tearful apology the following day, Li lost approximately one and half million of his online followers, although he still enjoys a following of 29 million on Weibo and 76 million on Taobao’s live-streaming platform. Social media posts and state media articles accused Li of being “privileged, tone-deaf, and condescending,” and of losing touch with his loyal viewers and his own humble beginnings. Li, who began his career as a L’Oréal shop assistant in Nanchang, was ranked as China’s highest-earning e-commerce livestreamer in 2021, a year in which he earned over 1.85 billion yuan (over $250 million U.S. dollars). Some of the comments left under Li’s Weibo apology mentioned the economic downturn and stagnant wages for ordinary workers. “Actually, most people are working hard,” read one. “It’s not their fault that their wages are low. It’s the general environment.” A Weibo user from Zhejiang province cautioned, “Water can carry a boat but it can also capsize it,” a pointed reminder that the fans who elevated Li to online stardom could, if alienated, also bring about his downfall.

Some online essayists and commentators interpreted Li’s rant as evidence that he has lost touch with the lives of ordinary people, whereas others argued that it isn’t Li who has changed—it is China’s socioeconomic realities and expectations. An article by commentator Ye Kefei highlights two of the most-liked internet comments about the Li Jiaqi debacle: “Back then, when your parents couldn’t afford to pay your school tuition, was it because they didn’t work hard enough?” and “A group of poor people helped make a poor man rich, and now that man looks down on the poor people who made him rich.” The article ends by noting that while many successful people turn their backs on their working-class roots, Li Jiaqi just happened to forget himself and say that part aloud:

Rather than saying that Li Jiaqi has forgotten where he came from, it might be better to say that society itself fundamentally despises those on its bottom rung. After Li Jiaqi and others like him climb to the top of the socioeconomic ladder with the help of those on the bottom rung, they scorn not only their own humble origins, but also those of their humble audience. Making a clean break from one’s past also involves making a clean break from one’s lower-class origins. It’s just that, while some people would never come out and say it, Li Jiaqi happened to let it slip. [Chinese]

A WeChat essay by Hao Daxing, who blogs about technology, media, and communications, mentions the persistent myth of meritocracy. “Successful people always think that success is derived from hard work,” he writes, “but it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the vast majority of people in this world are working very hard.” Another essay, by WeChat blogger Song Qingren, reminds readers that in today’s economy, there is scant correlation between hard work and wage increases. But rather than recognize the myriad complex economic challenges China is facing, some government officials, state media outlets, and online influencers insist on castigating ordinary working-class citizens for the nation’s economic woes:

I say that Li Jiaqi “can’t help himself” because he can no longer empathize with the lower classes and he doesn’t care about the current state of the economy. Workers are having a hard enough time as it is hanging on to their jobs and avoiding salary cuts—how on earth are they supposed to ask for raises? Shifting the blame to those on the bottom rung by saying they “don’t work hard enough” is no different from blaming young people for unemployment by accusing them of being unwilling to “doff their Kong Yiji scholar’s gowns” [i.e. abandon hope of landing jobs befitting their academic degrees].

Of course those on the bottom economic rung are going to question the price of a 79-yuan eyebrow pencil. They can’t help but question it. I think that’s such an obvious point that it requires no further explanation. [Chinese]

Urban youth unemployment is so dire, running at over 20% in some cities, that the Chinese government recently stopped publishing data on it. And recent figures from online recruitment firm Zhaopin show that hiring salaries in Shanghai and Beijing dropped by 9% and 6% respectively in the second quarter of this year, the biggest slide since at least 2015. Meanwhile, many companies have been slashing benefits such as travel and meal allowances, even for higher-salary workers. A WeChat article from current-events commentator Wei Chunliang, “Li Jiaqi Raised a Very Good Question,” points out that the e-commerce titan simply voiced the question that has been preying on everyone’s mind:

The real question ought to be: We have all been working so hard, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, so why haven’t wages increased? Where does the problem lie? What is causing our lives to be so difficult? 

As blogger @陈生大王 (Chén Shēng Dàwáng) said, “Li Jiaqi saw the problem, but he misattributed the cause.”

[…] Li Jiaqi certainly works hard enough, but fortunate people always think that everything they get is by dint of their own hard work.

[…] I don’t believe that Li Jiaqi is a heinously evil person; he probably just lacks self-awareness. But that condescending look on his face when he asked, “Are you working hard enough?” is the same expression I saw when Bai Yansong kept exclaiming “Surely not!” as he chastised young people for “lying down,” and it’s the same attitude I saw when People’s Daily harped on unemployed youth for not doffing their “Kong Yiji scholar’s gowns.” 

It’s a face synonymous with power and privilege. [Chinese]

Two other WeChat essays note that Li Jiaqi’s rise coincided with an era of rapid economic growth, rising incomes, and conspicuous consumption. But the financial strains of the COVID pandemic and slowing economic growth have, understandably, caused many Chinese households to tighten their belts, reduce spending on luxuries such as cosmetics, and seek out bargains. The public’s financial expectations have changed, writes WeChat blogger @Sir电影 (Sir Diànyǐng, “Sir Film”), while Li Jiaying’s expectations have remained the same. It may be this mismatch that fueled Li’s obvious frustration during the livestream, and caused him to lash out at his viewers’ growing frugality. Sir Film ends his essay on the following note: “But what Li Jiaqi failed to realize is: he is a case in point. He is the past tense. The times, sir, have changed.”

An article from the WeChat public account @张所长 (Zhāng Suǒzhǎng, “Director Zhang”) observes that Li Jiaqi’s query about stagnant wages is particularly resonant in the current economic downturn:

He [Li Jiaqi] may not realize it, but the words that triggered this crisis of public opinion would not have provoked such a backlash just a few years ago when the economy was booming. ‍‍‍‍‍

But things are different now. (Author deleted 413 words here.) [presumably to avoid censorship]

If you can’t afford a 79 yuan eyebrow pencil, is it really because you don’t work hard enough?

[…] The current [economic] trend is unstoppable. Individuals are being swept up in the maelstrom, powerless to fight back. Attributing consumers’ lack of spending power to people not working hard enough is like blaming the victims of a flood for not running fast enough to escape the deluge. [Chinese]

A surgeon from Shanghai responded to Li Jiaqi’s question about stagnant wages by noting that although he is one of China’s top thoracic surgeons, he only earns an average of 500 yuan (less than $70 U.S. dollars) per surgery. The surgeon’s video was shared by Twitter user 李老师不是你老师 (Li Laoshi bushi ni laoshi, @whyyoutouzhele):

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