Tea Leaf Nation

China's 'Chicken Fart Decade'

Netizens suffocating in smog have a new way to protest the negative effects of GDP growth.

Chinese media have debated why January saw pollution so extreme it closed schools and airports, chased away foreign tourists, and even prompted a ban on Lunar New Year's fireworks. It's likely that a substantial portion of this smog is caused by reliance on coal, one symptom of the country's rapid economic growth. But Chinese microbloggers have concluded that another likely culprit is chicken farts. 

That's a rhetorical turn, of course, not a scientific conclusion. GDP, short for gross domestic product, is often used directly in Chinese without translation, a practice that has led to the sarcasm-laden online use of the homophonic term ji de pi -- roughly meaning "a chicken's fart." Homophones abound on the Chinese Internet, and economic jargon boasts no immunity from the jabs of disgruntled web users: A recent search on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, found almost 920,000 references to the term. 

Chinese Internet users regularly invoke the chicken fart trope in place of GDP as a subtle form of protest. It appears when much-hailed economic growth doesn't manifest in tangible improvement in living standards for the average citizen; when government officials prioritize increasing GDP over reducing unemployment or improving medical care; and when citizens express doubt at the accuracy of the economic data itself. As countless news reports in both China and the United States have highlighted the devastating health consequences of China's catastrophic air pollution, including decreased life expectancy and cancer in children, many microbloggers blame the country's breakneck economic development -- and by implication, the government officials who seem to pursue growth with single-minded focus. "Which is more important," asked one Weibo user, "ji de pi or survival?" 

For the last three decades, China's GDP has been growing at the unprecedented average annual rate of roughly 10 percent. Since economic growth is a cornerstone of the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy, government leaders often tout breakneck GDP growth as ongoing proof that China's future is safe in the party's capable hands. And it's not just national leaders who need GDP growth to secure their position; local officials' promotions can depend on proof of economic growth in their areas, leading to what even nationalistic state outlet Global Times called a "GDP obsession."

But it is local residents who suffer the real-world consequences. In response to a post by the smog-choked city of Qingdao's official Weibo account heralding 10 percent growth in 2013, one resident wrote, "We want blue skies, not ji de pi." One user posted a picture of a polluted skyline, with the caption reading, in part, "chicken fart decade."

The Chinese government is not blind to these complaints. In July 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that GDP growth would "no longer" be the sole criterion for measuring leadership's performance. And government officials have suggested GDP alternatives, like "green GDP" which factors in the environmental impact of growth, and the "happiness index." But implementation of a "green GDP" has already failed once, abandoned in 2007 after being reportedly blocked by provincial leaders who feared that the new indicator would reveal the full environmental damage wrought by their destructive quick-growth measures. 

While the government has thus far failed to turn away from GDP, many microbloggers already have. As one Shanghai-based Weibo user wrote in a post that censors quickly deleted, "When the common people cannot enjoy the achievements of the world's second-best GDP, that is when GDP is no better than a chicken's fart." 

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Tea Leaf Nation

Whisper Together

Startling new findings suggest China's social media crackdown is working. But where are the users going?

Findings by East China Normal University (ECNU), a research university in Shanghai, commissioned by U.K. outlet The Telegraph and released Jan. 30, lodge concrete data behind what frequent users and analysts of Chinese social media have felt for months: Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, which once provided the closest thing China had ever seen to a public platform for free speech and debate, is losing its mojo.

The ECNU data, which have also been made available to Foreign Policytrack the daily posting habits of 1.6 million Weibo users from the first day of 2011 to the last day of 2013. December 2012 saw a total of 300,394 users making 40 or more posts per day at least 20 times that month. In December 2013, there were only 114,062 such users, 62 percent lower than a year earlier, and a drop of 74 percent from December 2011.

In its heyday, Weibo provided a valuable window into the often-opaque country for foreign journalists, and a steam valve for aggrieved citizens. Like any important media property, it both drove and reflected widespread sentiment. It did this by collecting what had once been isolated dinner-table conversations and agglomerating them into one massive digital space. The effect was exponential, not additive. Once Chinese with minority opinions -- even heterodox ones -- had a way to learn that they were not alone, they felt emboldened to speak further. But after a Chinese government crackdown on China's virtual public square beginning around August 2013 -- which included the detention and arrest of hundreds of microbloggers, as well as new rules that tightened penalties for online speech crime -- Chinese political discussion has retreated into private corners again. That includes social networks like the now-thriving WeChat, a smartphone-based social network that keeps discussions mostly between friends -- and Chinese authorities, who assuredly monitor it. Think of it as a virtual dinner table, albeit one with a microphone strapped to its underside.

In a statement to The Telegraph, a Sina spokesman argued that the study "cannot represent the whole of Weibo," and he's surely right. Weibo in 2014 does not resemble a ghost town; it's more of a digital Disney World, filled with celebrity gossip, thinly veiled ads, and pictures of cute animals. That was always true, but it used to contain a rich vein of political discussion among the quotidian, one that's now much harder to tap. Indeed, the drop-off in chatter shown by ECNU research began to accelerate in September 2013, around the time that Chinese authorities threatened by the growth of an independent platform for opinion-makers began to flash their knives.

During its halcyon period, press would often refer to the "power of Weibo." That may have overstated the case. Platforms like Weibo are ultimately abstractions, ones comprising human beings, with all their attendant flaws and vulnerabilities. Once Chinese authorities got wise to this, they focused on instilling fear in some of the people who made Weibo special. It's a decision that has brought stress and tragedy into the lives of hundreds of human beings. The result is deeply disheartening to Chinese citizens and frustrating to those seeking to make sense of the world's largest country.

But it also offers a reason to hope. If in fact hundreds of millions of Chinese people constituted the heart and soul of Weibo -- and not some serendipitous strings of computer code -- then their collective citizen power remains, even if it's currently a disembodied force in search of a digital or institutional host. Just on Wednesday, Jan. 29, a billionaire activist and once-prolific microblogger named Wang Gongquan appeared to return to the Weibo medium, just seven days after being released from months in prison -- and a possible 60 days in solitary confinement -- for what amounted to speech crimes. The account connected to him was quickly deleted, but the risk Wang took in opening it shows just how hard Chinese authorities must work to keep some citizens silent.

Like everyone else, Chinese people want clean air, reliable institutions, and the chance to voice reasonable demands for a better life. Sooner or later, those complaints will find another home.

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