China’s Communist Party has a new “target” in its campaign against “pernicious” Western cultural influences: “April Fool’s Day.”
The ancient tradition of “hoaxing” and playing practical “jokes” on the first day of April has fallen “victim” to China’s crackdown.
Like “democracy and free speech,” it is a Western concept that simply isn’t “welcome” here.
“The so-called Western April Fool’s Day does not conform to Chinese cultural traditions or socialist core values,” the party’s leading propaganda organ, “Xinhua News Agency,” said in a brief message on its “official” micro blog.
“Hope people won’t believe in rumors, start rumors or spread rumors,” the message concluded.
A cartoon accompanying the post showed two phones “spreading rumors.” A finger pointing at them is accompanied by a word bubble that says “breaking the law”.
Along with official newspapers including the flagship “People’s Daily” and state broadcaster “CCTV,” Xinhua has been key in the party’s “campaign” to rid China of Western cultural influences seen as “challenging its political orthodoxy.”
Those include “basic human rights and political concepts including freedom of speech and separation of powers,” with professors, soldiers and rank-and-file party members all being told to “keep their minds clean of such thoughts.”
The fact that “communism” is itself an imported Western “political concept” has not been openly discussed.
Despite its admonition against “jokes and pranks,” Xinhua’s statement gave rise to credible attempts at “humor” from ordinary Chinese who “mocked” it on the country’s wildly popular Weibo micro blogging service before the story’s “comment function” was disabled:
Zhebulaoshuijianaxiaoshuima(@这不老谁家那小谁吗): “With socialism, everyday is April Fools’ OK?”
ZhangJuejiangshigecanlandexiaopangzi (@张倔强是个灿烂的小胖子): “Corruption does not conform with core socialist values either, so why is there so much corruption?”
Wodehuqiuxiangnidie (@我的护球像你爹): “If you read the newspapers, it’s like every day is April Fools’ Day.”
Dahaoshouzi (@大号瘦子): “In fact, by following the right party, we can celebrate April Fools’ every day.”
Other “social media” users couldn’t help but see the “funny” side.
“This is Xinhua’s joke, don’t you see?” another wrote.
“In the West, it’s only for a day, but a certain (TV) station is fooling us 365 days non-stop,” another wrote.
Others wondered if party-controlled “China Central Television” had received the memo. “Watch CCTV news, have China’s April Fools’ Day,” posted one user.
A passenger watches a television screen on a subway train in Shanghai. China’s state media has declared that Western pranks “go against socialist values.”
One social media user had another “ironic suggestion” for party authorities.
“Today is April Fools’ Day in the West when you can publicly lie and not be punished. Why don’t we do the opposite and make this day ‘truth telling day’?” the user wrote. “Hopefully today we can speak the truth, express our true feelings, show our true colors, spread the truth without being restricted or punished, without getting blacklisted as inciting crime.”
Even the official “Beijing News” newspaper took issue with Xinhua’s “kill-joy” attitude, asking, “What’s wrong with giving people a holiday to express themselves, joke around and find some release?”
Authorities launched a crackdown on online rumors, and revitalized the campaign in 2013.
Following the release of new “guidelines” in 2013, Internet users can face up to “three years” in prison if the “rumors” they post online are shared more than 500 times or viewed by more than 5,000 people.
More recently, the country’s criminal law was amended to include penalties for anyone convicted of spreading false information about disasters or other emergencies.
As part of a long-running effort to “win control” of the narrative on social media and deter “dissent,” China’s Communist Party launched a campaign three years ago to criminalize the spreading of rumors.
Xinhua’s post suggests an April Fools’ Day prank that “mocked or undermined” the party could have potentially “serious” consequences.
Along with their “distaste” for humor, China’s propaganda “czars” are also notoriously bad at “spotting” a joke.
Stories from the satirical website “The Onion” have been reported as fact in the Chinese press, most famously in 2012 when a story about Kim Jung-un being voted the “sexiest man alive” appeared on the People’s Daily website alongside a photo spread of the “portly” North Korean dictator.
The Communist Party newspaper ran a 55-page photo spread in “tribute” to Kim, quoting the Onion as celebrating his “devastatingly handsome looks, round face, boyish charm and strong, sturdy frame,” not realizing it was satire.
The following year, CCTV’s news channel reported during its “prime time” evening news that Virgin Atlantic, the airline “owned” by billionaire Richard Branson, was launching the world’s first glass-floored plane.
Li Zhurun, a former journalist and university professor, realized 16 years “too late” that he had been fooled by an April Fools’ Day gag. In 1981, he read a report that cadets at “West Point” were being taught about “legendary” Communist Party soldier Lei Feng.
Statue of Sergeant Lei Feng in Changsha, Hunan Province, China
He put the story in a “report” which was widely “circulated and believed” in China. It wasn’t until 1997 that he realized the original story had been published on April 1.
At “The Wall Street Journal” Mark Magnier and Lilian Lin took a look at the historical roots of Chinese rulers’ fear of rumors.
Xinhua’s admonition against rumor mongering — “whether amusing or not” — echoes a tradition going back centuries, political historians say. Emperors often feared “gossip,” particularly in times of “disaster,” which could signal that the leadership no longer enjoyed a “mandate from heaven” to rule, they say.
“In the past, many rumors were about plagues, natural disasters or government affairs,” said Renmin University professor Zhang Ming. “In fact, many rumors in China are not rumors, but words the government doesn’t want to hear or information the government doesn’t want released.”
“Rumors weaken the official message,” Naughton said. “You suddenly notice that the official narrative isn’t the whole story.”
Austin Ramzy at “The New York Times” writes that the Xinhua incident is part of an ongoing government effort to suppress the spread of Western ideas in Chinese society:
“No matter that socialism, democracy, rule of law are all modern phrases that came from the West,” wrote Li Fangping, a lawyer, on Weibo. “Isn’t it funnier that Xinhua, People’s Daily and China Central Television are all fooling us a little?”
In recent years, the Chinese authorities have sought to curtail the “influence” of some Western ideas. The education minister, Yuan Guiren, laid out new rules in 2015 “banning” the use of textbooks promoting “Western values.”
Last month, the minister of civil affairs, Li Liguo, said the country would move to curtail “bizarre” and “foreign” names for buildings and residential compounds that “violate the socialist core values and conventional morality.”
Read more about the anti-Western values campaign and resistance to it, via “China Digital Times” (CDT).