At 1 p.m. on July 6, two well-known Chinese microbloggers arrived at the south gate of Beijing’s Chaoyang Park to settle their differences. The encounter was publicly pre-arranged on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog.
No (uniformed) police arrived, despite the fact that in the 48 hours after the challenge was issued and accepted, the event's details were re-tweeted thousands of times on Chinese microblogs.
It was an inevitable clash, with the parties representing either side of China’s deepest online partisan divide: those who allegedly blog on behalf of the government and those who allegedly debate free of any taint. The former group is known pejoratively as “the 50-Cent Party,” or 50-Centers, an Anglicization of the .5 yuan ($0.08) fee they are rumored to receive for each pro-government post or tweet. (Though the name has stuck, several government agencies have denied that this is their actual salary.) One doesn’t need to be in the employ of the government to be a 50-Center -- it’s enough to simply act like it. Of those who act like it, few are more reviled than Wu Danhong, a 33-year-old professor at Beijing University of Political Science and Law, who blogs under the handle Wu Fa Tian and denies he's paid by the government. Even the pro-government Global Times newspaper publishes the sneering occasional nickname China’s microbloggers have given Wu: “chief representative" of the 50-Cent Party.
Wu takes every opportunity to defend or rehabilitate the government or to advance a pro-Party line. Last year, he helped form an online Anti-Rumor League primarily concerned with debunking antigovernment gossip. More recently, he questioned the widely-circulated suggestion that 30 million Chinese people died of starvation during Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He went so far as to set up a poll where netizens could vote on a variety of mortality estimates.
And then, early last week, he aggressively supported the construction of a controversial copper and molybdenum refining plant. Concerns about pollution sparked protests in Sichuan province, and by mid-week, the local government gave in and halted construction. That still didn’t erase the memory of Wu’s tweets, one of which pointed out that copper and molybdenum occur naturally in the human body, and thus maybe the copper-molybdenum plant wouldn’t be a polluter, after all.
Wu’s support for the refinery caught the attention of Sichuan TV reporter Zhou Yan, who had recently gained a following for her empathetic coverage and tweets about the protests. In a set of tweets that quickly escalated into insults, she and Wu attacked what they characterized as each other’s ignorance. The exchange (many tweets have since been deleted, making the full narrative difficult to reconstruct) culminated on July 5, with the two parties agreeing to settle their differences in Chaoyang Park.
It is not clear what precisely was to be accomplished in Chaoyang Park. Zhao doesn’t indicate much more than a desire to do something about Wu’s “big mouth.” Wu is not so restrained. Tweeting on his Sina Weibo account shortly after accepting the challenge to the rumble, the professor announced: “Let the scum take heed: law-fearing people aren’t alone anymore and those who break the law have reason to fear.”
If Zhou was intimidated by Wu’s antics, she did not cower. According to a video of the entire encounter (there are several others that offer different angles) that has circulated widely on the Chinese Internet, she showed up at the south gate of Chaoyang Park with what appear to be some 20 friends to back her up. Wu, on the other hand, seems to have arrived with two friends (at least, that’s how many people whisk him away at the end of the video) -- not a very scholarly approach to gang warfare.
Perhaps emboldened by her sizable posse -- and the dozens of cell phone cameras deployed in and around the perimeter of said rumble -- the diminutive Zhou attacks with her umbrella (which she then flings aside) and then slaps the professor on the face. He responds with a slap at her midriff before somebody pulls her away.
What happens next is a matter of controversy. In some videos, an unidentified man in a white shirt appears to rush up and strikes Wu so hard he hits the ground -- though other camera angles -- and bloggers -- suggest Wu took a melodramatic dive. Nobody, however, disputes how this opening round is finished off: Somebody rushes up and lands a kick on the 50-cent professor’s rear end.
At this point, Wu’s friends -- if they can be called that -- decide to step in and protect him. The rumble evolves into a debate on Wu’s ethics, Zhou’s ethics and whether morality trumps the law -- all salted with a rich selection of Beijing profanity.
This goes on for over 10 minutes until, quite suddenly, a bearded gnome-like figure -- better known as the artist, activist and provocateur Ai Weiwei -- enters the picture and makes a grab for Professor Wu’s ear. The crowd howls, delighted at the appearance of the international celebrity, and then does its best to restrain him from taking off Wu’s head. It’s not easy: Ai raises his arm, threatening to tomahawk the spectacled professor with what looks like a smart phone. When he realizes he can’t get close enough to do it, he breaks away from his impromptu guards, makes an end run around the crowd and dashes after Wu, who is in full retreat with his friends. Ai is twice restrained in the process.
Ai, too, has a history with Wu Danhong and the 50-cent crowd. Last August, after Ai was released from an 81-day detention for alleged tax evasion (though it was widely believed to be in connection with his activism and recent protests), Wu offered an interview to the Global Times, the nationalistic offspring of the official Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily. His quote, and the paper’s commentary, was consistent with what other 50-Centers were saying -- and continue to say -- about Ai:
‘Ai's case has been used by the Westerners,’ Wu Danhong, an assistant professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times. Wu is another critic who says Ai may be in cahoots with an unseen international conspiracy. ‘By condemning China's repression of dissidents in the name of democracy, foreign countries that don't want a stronger China intentionally attempt to descend China into turmoil by hyping Ai's case.’
Was that the reason Ai looked ready to rip off Wu Danhong’s ear? There’s no way to tell. Nonetheless, when interviewed this week by the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, Ai downplayed his role in the fight (to the point of contradicting video evidence): “I’m not the kind of person to beat people up.”
For all his antics, Ai is obviously aware that many of his supporters -- especially overseas ones -- will be uncomfortable with evidence that he behaved violently toward one of his critics. That is not, after all, how internationally renowned dissidents are supposed to go about their business. A brief scan of the thousands of tweets on Sina Weibo in the wake of the park incident (it's been a top trending topic for most of the last five days), reveals a Chinese public willing to forgive this transgression, if only because it involves Wu Danhong. “Beating someone up is wrong,” tweeted a microblogger in Hangzhou, an affluent city in Zhejiang province. “But beating up Wu is an exception. Fatty Ai [a nickname used for Ai because his name is a censored term on Sina Weibo] is so handsome.” A microblogger in Fujian province echoed that sentiment: “Fatty Ai looked so happy, but beating others is not right. Of course, if you want to beat him [Wu], that’s OK.”
Still, neither China’s microbloggers, nor its newspaper editorialists, view this incident positively. In a Tuesday editorial, Cao Lin, the independent-minded chief commentator for Beijing-based China Youth Daily, sees it as the inevitable outcome of a divided society:
First, the problem is a breach in the social fabric, and Weibo is just an amplifier of it. Hostility was fomented online and then came to life in reality. The gap between rich and poor, the different class positions, different ideological positions, and identities were divided and then sharpened into irreconcilable differences. The two parties have obviously different class positions, factions, and viewpoints. They didn’t fight for themselves, but for the factions they represent.
For now, the only faction that appears to have suffered from the battle is the one represented by Zhou Yan, the journalist. According to the Beijing Cream blog, she’s rumored to be spending five days in detention. Meanwhile, Wu Danhong remains free to tweet. As for Ai Weiwei, he was last seen Friday afternoon, taking a stroll in Chaoyang Park.
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.