Despite a frenzied over-reaction that practically nuked Liang Xiangyi off the Internet, the tyrants of Beijing cannot quite make the exasperated reporter in the blue dress disappear.
Perhaps there is some hope to be found in the notion that a woman can still speak truth to power in authoritarian China, or at least say, “Oh, give me a break.”
Liang is the reporter who very visibly displayed her impatience with a toadying question from another journalist at a press conference on Tuesday. The other woman, Zhang Huijun, asked a “question” that was really just an obsequious recital of China’s recent achievements and ended by asking a government bureaucrat how the government of President Xi Jinping planned to be even more awesome in the future.
Liang’s increasingly surprised and fed-up response to Huijin’s performance set the Chinese Internet on fire. Of course, the massive Communist censorship apparatus was standing by with fire extinguishers. They went to incredible lengths to make it hard for Chinese users to find this video or learn much of anything about Liang Xiangyi:
Nevertheless, Liang quickly became an iconic symbol of mild defiance, a way for younger Chinese to let the big bosses know they have little choice but to go along with the party line, but they do not actually believe it. It seemed like the perfect way to come up just short of challenging party propaganda, but remind the Party that everyone knows it is propaganda.
— Mathieu Labasse (@zelab) March 15, 2018
Within twenty-four hours, China’s censors had not only blocked web searches for anything related to Liang, but they actually ordered all Chinese media to refrain from mentioning her in any way and delete every single online post referring to the incident. Her own news network, Yicai, tried to regain control of the narrative by posting noncontroversial footage of her asking businesslike questions at an official press conference last weekend, but the government forced them to take even that video down.
CNN notes that one reason the incident caught fire with China’s population is that the National Party Congress has been so tightly scripted. President Xi Jinping is taking dictatorial powers and lifetime tenure. The Party knows this makes many citizens uncomfortable, so they have gone to great lengths to create an impression of enthusiastic national unity behind Xi. In contrast, Liang’s hilarious reaction was like blowing a kazoo in the middle of a funeral procession.
QUEEN. "One colleague told Liang Xiangyi that her eye-rolling moment was broadcast live, to which she replied 'Because the woman next to me was being an idiot.'" https://t.co/x5CCBH38ke
— Megha Rajagopalan (@meghara) March 13, 2018
As one Internet wag put it, “A huge production with thousands of actors had failed to top the box office for a week, until two extras on set suddenly captured everyone’s imagination. There are no small actors, only small parts.”
China’s rivals in India are greatly enjoying the show, comparing Liang to a young actress named Priya Prakash Varrier who became a comparable Indian Internet sensation with a saucy wink in a movie scene. As in Liang’s case, GIF satirists quickly went to work with Varrier’s wink and created some hilarious parody mash-ups:
— MC 视界 (@Manyi2017) March 13, 2018
The difference for Liang, alas, is that Varrier’s wink was not as a gesture of defiance against a brutal Communist regime that puts a great deal of effort into stamping out dissent. Liang’s swelling fan base tells her she is the only thing they remember about the National Party Congress. The Party hates that.
Liang’s press credentials have reportedly been revoked, and her personal page on Weibo (China’s Twitter) has been taken down. Foreign journalists noted she was curiously absent from an event on Wednesday that she would normally have covered. The company she works for, Yicai Media, did not respond to questions about her status.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press, the last information about Liang was a leaked screenshot from a Yicai Media chat room in which she explained she was exasperated with Zhang, the reporter in the red outfit from the famous video, and not the Chinese government. “Her question was even longer than the answer,” Liang grumbled.
If she is lucky, the government will decide that going any harder on her would be counterproductive.
A footnote for those concerned about the Chinese government’s growing influence over Western companies and media: Zhang, the reporter in the red outfit that drove Liang to distraction by asking such an obsequious question of a Chinese minister, works for an American company called American Multimedia Television. CNN notes the company is based in California and “boasts close ties with China’s state broadcaster CCTV, Zhang’s former employer.”
“Reporters from media outlets based abroad but with ties back to China’s state media apparatus are often called on at government events so that Beijing can appear to cede the floor to ‘foreign’ journalists—who will nonetheless toe the party line,” the Hong Kong Free Press explains.