As China targets Jack Ma’s media empire, President Rabbit thrives

Jack Ma

Photographer: Qilai Shen / Bloomberg

Even as China moves to strip the media of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. of Jack Ma, the authorities are allowing several patriotic upstarts to flourish in one of the most restrictive media spaces in the world.

One of the leading voices is President Rabbit, the social media nickname for Harvard-educated Prince Ren Yi whose popularity comes in part from Chinese citizens tired of what they see as constant attacks on China. in the western media. Former assistant to the late sinologist Ezra Vogel, President Rabbit has built a Following more than two million fans on the social media platforms Weibo and WeChat.

The media must have “social responsibility” and think about public sentiment, Ren said in a telephone interview. He added that China was still trying to find a balance between allowing different points of view while ensuring that the public does not lose trust in political institutions.

Ren’s success helps show where the line is for a permissible speech under President Xi Jinping, who has further restricted the space for dissenting and critical voices since he took power in 2012. Beyond kicking out some foreign journalists. and now Pressuring Ma to sell properties like the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, China, also moves frequently to override new media platforms that are not under his control.

Authorities swiftly blocked the Clubhouse last month after it emerged as a place where Internet users, including those from China, gathered to discuss the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and the independence of Taiwan, topics deemed too sensitive to consider. an open debate on China’s Internet. Around the same time, social media users and bloggers were required to obtain a license to post about current events, making it virtually impossible for anyone to operate outside of China’s censorship system.

But some of those adopting the restrictions are finding large audiences among Chinese citizens who are skeptical of both Western narratives and state spokespersons like the People’s Daily or China Central Television. Ren’s writing took off during the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, when he won over well-educated readers who weren’t fully persuaded by the stories presented by mainstream Chinese media.

Ren argued that the protesters were driven by identity politics and would never support the mainland authorities, regardless of the financial incentives offered. He compared Hong Kong youth wearing black T-shirts to the Ku Klux Klan and said the leaders of the financial center were infiltrated by the “deep state” and should be evaluated for their political opinions, a notion Xi implemented this year with rules. that only “patriots ”can rule the city.

China’s need for a positive narrative beyond official sources, including aggressive diplomats referred to as “Wolf Warriors ”in the West – became even more apparent after criticism about how it handled the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past year, Beijing has been increasingly on the defensive in the face of widespread criticism about how it mostly treats ethnic Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

‘They will demonize you’

Xi has long called on Chinese media workers and academics to do a better job by “telling China’s stories to the world.” Some have been sent to study with Zhang Weiwei at the Chunqiu Institute at Fudan University, according to two people who attended the sessions. Zhang, a staunch and vocal defender of how China’s governance model is superior to Western democracies, is reputed to be among Xi’s favorite academics, according to one of the people.

Chinese scholars are also trying to find ways to explain China in a way that is understandable to the West. Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University and a former Chinese diplomat, said the dissociation was the result of the United States being unable to annihilate or assimilate China.

“America has a very religious mindset: They want to take you into their sphere,” said Wang, who is working on a book that he says is China’s counter-argument to Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” “And if they can’t, they will demonize you and try to destroy you.”

Protesters in Hong Kong on New Years Eve as protesters try to keep warm in China in 2020

Protesters gather for a New Years Eve countdown event in Hong Kong on December 31, 2019.

Photographer: Justin Chin / Bloomberg

Wang Zichen was so shocked by the way Western journalists cover China that he decided to publish his own newsletter. Almost a year later, “Pekingnology ”has quickly garnered some 1,600 subscribers, including diplomats in Beijing, journalists and investors, with in-depth dives on everything it really owns. Huawei Technologies Co. to the most diffuse elements of Chinese politics as the “Spirit of the Fifth Plenary.”

“It shows telling a Chinese story from a Chinese perspective, deeply rooted in Chinese practice, is of great value and can be appreciated by the West,” said Wang Zichen.

Wang Zichen

Photographer: Colum Murphy / Bloomberg

Like President Rabbit, Wang Zichen presents himself as an independent voice even though he works day to day as a reporter for the state media. Xinhua News Agency. He said his bosses have given a tacit nod of approval to go ahead with his side project, but he insists he is acting alone. “It’s a one-man store,” he said. “There is no outside help, intervention or guidance.”

Wang Zichen regards prominent China observer Bill Bishop as an inspiration, especially to show that China experts can be financially lucrative. Pekingnology is published on the Substack platform, in which Bishop is an investor. Wang Zichen also admires Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper, for being one of the first to defend China on Twitter.

“I deeply love my country,” said Wang Zichen. “I think to make people understand more about China in its own original intended meaning, that’s the purpose of people in my profession.”

– With the assistance of Colum Murphy, Jing Li and Lucille Liu


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