In recent years, some of Chinese officials’ most famous sayings haven’t come from speeches or Party-line propaganda. No, many of them are off-the-cuff responses to questions that live forever in infamy on the internet, where people laugh and shake their heads. These sayings are called leirenyu 雷人语, or “shocking words”, phrases often spoken by government officials and most notable for their insensitivity, out-of-touchness, and general lofty arrogance.
In fact, there are lots of 雷人语, and not all of them are government related, but some of the most famous ones are. Right now, the newest saying on the block comes courtesy of a high-level official in Jilin who was caught on audio tape complaining about how common people always want “fairness”:
Government leaders should ride on horses and in sedan cars [i.e., should receive special perks and treatment]. The common people want fairness? ((or, “equality”)) How truly shameless!”
Clearly, the department leader has no sense of irony, but netizens certainly do. The phrase exploded on the internet and quickly became big enough that it was even getting news coverage (it was also a trending search on Baidu for several hours this morning). You can read more about it, plus hear the full audio recording, where he says a bit more, here.
It is a phenomenon that speaks simultaneously to China’s remarkably open (even though it’s also remarkably closed) internet and to the ever-widening gap between “the people” and those who govern them. Of course, politicians everywhere say dumb things ((Just Google “Dan Quayle”)), but sometimes it seems like Chinese leaders lack the filter that most foreign politicians have that prevents them from saying things that betray their immense sense of entitlement. Of course, that’s probably because they don’t need it; since Chinese leaders aren’t elected by the people, there’s often no real reason for them to care what people think of them.
Anyway, since they’re kind of fun, let’s enjoy a few more dumb quotes before we get to the point, shall we? These “shocking words” are all from this years’ two meetings, a time when Chinese politicians have unprecedented media access and thus ample opportunity to make themselves sound stupid and/or callous.
“We shouldn’t encourage the children of farmers to go to college.” -Wang Li
“There should be a big gap between the rich and the poor!” -Hu Kailin
“If post-80s guys can’t afford to buy houses, then post-80s girls can just marry 40-year-olds. And if post-80s guys have the means, waiting till you’re 40 to marry a 20 year old girl isn’t a bad choice at all.” -Liang Bei
“Rising housing prices is fundamentally a currency problem; the common people just have too much money [and that’s what’s causing the prices to rise].” -Ma Weihua
“We should really raise the price of fertilizer and pesticide so that they [farmers] can’t afford to buy it. Farmers should be waking up early every day carrying baskets to collect poop off the ground.” -Wen Simei
“The reason Spring Festival train tickets are so difficult to purchase is that their price is too low.” -Luo Jinbao
“The higher the income tax [minimum standard], the fewer the beneficiaries.” -Hua Sheng
And, because it’s one of my favorites, here’s one classic from 2010:
“When [Chinese] athletes win a gold medal, they can’t thank their parents first!” -Yu Zaiqing
(I’ll give you one guess as to who Yu thinks they should thank first: it begins with the letter G and it rhymes with “blovernment”.)
Anyway, all of this brings to mind another “shocking words” scandal from a couple months ago that didn’t get much play in international circles (as these things generally don’t). In an interview where a reporter was asking about a forced demolition case, Wang Hongyi, an official representative of the company who did the demolishing (he was also, coincidentally I’m sure, the former vice-director of the Changchun land administration department) responded:
“Everything about demolition in this country is chaotic, you should go talk to someone from the People’s Congress about that […] you should be reporting on how [the new development we’re building] was developed. You should be reporting how the people make things difficult for the government, causing trouble and extorting the government. You should be reporting how the people don’t cooperate with the demolitions…”
You get the point.
This attitude is actually increasingly common, though, and not just in 雷人语 that become the butt of netizens’ jokes. Actually, the same whiny attitude is evident in frequent official editorials in papers like the People’s Daily or the Global Times that all share the same general message: the public just isn’t doing what they want them to.
Increasingly, this is aimed squarely at the internet. While government leaders are clearly quite proud that domestic services like Sina Weibo are taking off beyond their foreign competitors ((Turns out that’s pretty easy to accomplish when your foreign competitors are blocked, but whatever.)) but they’re increasingly sour about the stuff people are actually saying. The gloating about how “free” China’s internet is has given way to stern warnings that public opinion needs to be “controlled”, how the net doesn’t represent the mainstream, how internet users are low quality, and how the internet is downright unfair to people with pro-government opinions. There have been a number of Global Times op-eds with this message over the last year, though I’m having trouble tracking the links down at the moment. Anyone who reads the paper regularly has surely seen them, though.
You see, society is great. It’s just that those damn common people keep ruining things for the government, who is doing a super-great job and who are truly the unsung heroes of China ((You know, unless you count all that “red songs” stuff)). In fact, common people are even responsible for the recent epidemic of food safety issues, according to some officials!
Anyway, it’s probably no surprise that many people in the CPC, which has enjoy uninterrupted rule and little domestic criticism over the past sixty years, are feeling a bit entitled about their position at this point. But it’s still astonishing in a way; how deluded do you have to be to have total control over a country’s finances, military, communications, etc. etc., and still feel you’re the one being treated unfairly because regular people are saying mean things about you on Weibo.
Things continue to get worse, so I don’t expect that the criticism will stop anytime soon. Domestic airlines just announced that their fees will be going up for all flights because of increased fuel prices, and food prices continue to rise. Ever eager to do their part for the motherland, some Kunming chengguan even beat up some singers yesterday. The criticism will certainly continue. Officials will have to choose whether they want to continue spending so much time and money shutting people up. Hiring thugs to intimidate and threaten, deleting microblog posts, videos, blog posts, text messages, policing public speeches, harassing journalists….at some point, it would probably just be easier and cheaper just to fix the problems everyone’s complaining about, right?