In China, news has a habit of disappearing; from state media, traditional media, personal blogs, microblogs, and Internet forums alike. After an important incident, citizens have roughly a day to opine before the government apparatus catches up. It is then that directives are issued to media outlets, outlining what can and cannot be reported; it is then that posts you swore you wrote vanish; it is then that new “sensitive keywords” are entered into a blackout database.
But this sort of state-induced amnesia doesn’t mean the incidents are forgotten or disappear from public consciousness. For the discerning public, these events are preserved in other ways. Usually it’s though whispered anecdotes that blend fact and rumor. Sometimes it’s through a kind of numeric shorthand: May 4 (5.4), June 4 (6.4), and, more recently, May 12 (5.12, referring to the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake). But with the spread of Internet and cell phone connectivity comes another form of public remembrance which we will focus on here: the catchphrase turned Internet meme.
Last week, railway ministry spokesman Wang Yongping became the most quoted person in China after a press conference on the evening of July 24, just one day after the Wenzhou train collision, in which he uttered two phrases that might be repeated for years to come.
“This is a miracle.”
Here’s the setup. After authorities had claimed that there were no more survivors on the derailed train cars, they began to push them around with cranes in preparation to bury them, causing rumors to fly that there were still survivors and that the government was intent on literally burying the evidence.
That assertion, turns out, is at least partly true. 21 hours after the collision, rescue workers found two-year-old Xiang Weiyi (nicknamed Yiyi) alive inside one of the cars. This turn of events led to a widespread conviction that the government had not taken the rescue effort seriously.
At the Ministry of Railways press conference, Wang was in the unenviable position of having to account for why someone would be found alive when the government had declared everyone dead and had begun to tear the train cars apart. But it’s okay, this guy is a professional. Just say you’re sorry, you messed up, stand up and bow, offer condolences, throw in some empty platitudes if you have the time, and you’ll be home in time for dinner. No sweat.
Reporter: Why would a girl be found alive while disassembling the train cars, when rescue attempts were already finished?
Wang: This is a miracle. You ask why—
Reporter: This is not a miracle!
[Many reporters angrily yelling at once.]
Reporter: What I want to ask is this: Why, after you had already announced that there were no survivors, when you had already begun to disassemble to the train? Why would there still be a survior?
Wang: I am answering you. This happened. We truly did find a girl who was alive. This is the way things are.
Now, I don’t want to be too hard on Wang. After all he is just a government lackey, but ARE YOU SERIOUS? A miracle? Someone call the pope, I think a sainthood is in order! Is it also a miracle that this girl has symptoms of PTSD? Or is that just what happens when you leave a two-year-old to die in a train car?
Unsurprisingly, this quote spread across the Chinese Internet and added fuel to the argument that the Chinese government, to paraphrase Kanye West, doesn’t care about Chinese people. Certainly, the insouciance with which Wang answers the question is disturbing. The lack of depth and self-reflection in his response belies a disregard for the girl’s life, which could easily be generalized to the Party itself.
In the end, I think I understand what Wang is trying to say. For a toddler to survive the train crash in which her parents died is nothing short of Potter-esque; for a defenseless child to survive the full force of the Chinese government’s ineptitude and negligence, is nothing short of miraculous. But if little Yiyi is Harry Potter, then what does that make the government?
“Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”
At another point in the press conference, a reporter asked why the government had attempted to bury parts of the train. Wang’s response was:
Why was the train car buried? Actually, when I got off the plane today, the comrade who picked me up from the airport said that he already saw this kind of news online. I was on the plane so I didn’t have a good handle on things. I wanted to ask him, “Why would there be such a foolish question? Can an event that the whole world knows about really be buried?” He told me, “It’s not being buried. Truthfully, this news cannot be buried.” We have already tried though countless ways to broadcast this information to society.
But about burying [the train car], [the people who picked me up from the airport] gave this explanation. Because the scene of the rescue was very complicated. Below was a quagmire. It was very hard to perform rescue operations. So they buried the head of the car underneath, covered it with dirt, mainly to facilitate rescue efforts. Right now, this is his explanation. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.
Wang delivers the last line with a satisfied nod of the head and a swing of his right hand (animated GIF here), as if to emphasize the important thing is that he has deluded himself. Whether or not the Chinese people can delude themselves is their problem. An utter lack of curiosity or a desire to know the truth permeates his response. There is no indignation, no second-guessing, no doubt—just gleeful ignorance.
Never mind the lack of logic: It’s hard to perform rescue operations on unstable ground so fuck it, let’s just bury everyone alive. Then, on the backs of the deceased, we can try and rescue some people. Perhaps this is why some netizens have taken to calling Mr. Wang, “Emperor Logic.”
Add to the fact that the Chinese government, like every government, is very successful at burying events that the whole world knows about. One might even say they excel at it. This press conference gives us a rare glimpse into why the Chinese government works so well: they’ve stacked their ranks with people who have cheerfully drunk the Kool-Aid. I had hoped that officials in the government didn’t believe their own bullshit but Wang here wallows in it. You’ve gotta give him points for gullibility.
The Social Consciousness
Jokes incorporating Wang’s responses quickly surfaced. A comment on the latter video reads, “Wang Yongping is impotent. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”
A longer joke imagines a retelling of Journey to the West:
Tangzeng and his followers have to go back to West Heaven and Tangzeng wants to take a shortcut so he asks Wukong’s advice. Wukong says, “I hear planes are much faster than your white horse.” Bajie advises, “Master, I hear the Shenzhou 6 is even faster.” Then, Shazeng pulls out four tickets for a high-speed train and says to Tangzeng: “Master, I hear this thing can send you straight to West Heaven. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”
Aside from finding humor in an otherwise depressing situation, memes like this are important because they embed the event in the social consciousness, preserving knowledge about the event for a longer period of time. After all, a government’s greatest ally is the forgetfulness of the general public.
These cultural memes show that although the government is monitoring the Internet more and more carefully—blocking websites, deleting posts and reposts—they cannot stop their infamies from seeping into the culture itself. Perhaps the only way citizens can remind themselves of the tragedies that are whitewashed, rewritten, or otherwise brushed aside, is to make them a part of the underground lexicon.
Shortly after the accident, a user on Tencent’s microblogging service started a “High-speed Rail Style Sentence Making Competition,” which challenged users to make sentences using Wang’s, “Regarding ___, whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.” Though I cannot locate the thread (it may have been harmonized), the competition had over 7,000 replies by the evening of the 27th.
Some entries were preserved on other parts of the web:
The Chinese Soccer Association said: “The Chinese soccer team will qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.”
There is no traffic in Beijing today. This is a miracle, but that is how it happened. Whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.
“River crab,” Baidu’s 10 Mythical Creatures, “harmonize,” are all part of the underground lexicon that undermine the government’s official line. Wang follows in a long line of people who were unfortunate enough to coin a phrase that perfectly embodies the iniquities of their society. Former champions include Ted Stevens with his conception of the Internet as “a series of tubes” and Li Qiming who notoriously announced to the world, “My dad is Li Gang.”
The Li Gang case is especially salient because the catchphrase ensured the enduring popularity of the incident and kept it in the public consciousness until, finally, the government was forced to act. (That case also spawned a writing competition in which netizens were tasked to rewrite classical poems by incorporating the phrase, “My dad is Li Gang.”)
Although Wang’s memes have staying power—they are beautiful in their simplicity, as the best memes are—the issue they deal with is too sensitive and the Chinese government will not act on something that strikes at the heart of their legitimacy just because a few netizens are cracking jokes behind their back. But these seemingly innocuous jokes hurt the credibility of the Ministry of Railways if not the central government and could serve to pressure more officials to step down in the future.
It’s a long shot but whether or not you believe it; either way, I believe it.