Words of intimidation that start as figures of speech can cast a pall over an environment that already has a built-in susceptibility to extreme language
A few days ago, Wang Mudi, a television host in Guangdong province, accompanied his girlfriend to the hospital. The nurse did an extremely sloppy job putting her on a drip. It took her four attempts to properly inject the needle. All the while she was carrying on a casual conversation with a colleague.
Wang was so enraged he wrote on his Weibo, a Chinese microblog, that “I felt I wanted to hack someone.” The next day, a healthcare industry association demanded he apologize or his employer should sack him.
Wang quickly removed his blog post and later issued a lengthy apology. He has a mild disposition, he said, and he did not name the hospital or the nurse in his original post so nobody was hurt by his outburst. It was “on the spur of the moment that I made the wrong remark,” he explained.
Most online denizens seemed to agree that what Wang did exacerbated China’s troubled doctor-patient relations. A recent spate of incidents where patients or their family members resorted to violence and physically harmed members of medical services has raised alarm about the vulnerability of the profession. Previously, however, the media portrayed medical professionals as greedy merchants who coerced bribes from patients.
Some say Wang got away too lightly, especially compared with Wu Hongfei. Wu, a singer and writer, made the news six months ago when she was arrested for posting threatening words on her blog. She said she “wanted to blow up the neighborhood committee” and a few other government agencies. She was detained for 10 days and fined 500 yuan ($81), but not prosecuted, possibly because of public pressure. She was said to have violated two clauses of the law, including “claims to use arson, explosion or harmful material to disturb public order” and “fabricating and purposefully distributing false or horror-inducing information.”
Do I believe that Wang is a potential killer and Wu a potential arsonist? Not for a minute. It’s a way to let off some steam. I can totally understand their frustration. We’ve all been in situations when clenching our teeth was not enough.
But what they did was wrong. Weibo is a public platform. Shouting “I want to kill him!” in the privacy of your home is not the same as saying it to hundreds of thousands of people. (Wang has 377,500 followers on his Weibo account and Wu 133,100.) What if someone, like the police, takes your words literally? You may laugh at the police for taking it too seriously, but you would definitely point a finger of blame at them if ― and it’s a big if ― the person who posted it actually went out and did something bad but they had assumed it was just an articulation of anger.
The Internet is supposed to be a democratic platform where everyone has an equal opportunity for expression. In reality, it has evolved into a podium for shouting matches. To stand out in a pool of hundreds of millions of voices, many will naturally resort to extreme means. Even otherwise professional websites often coin absurd headlines to lure readers. And on personal blogs, it is the most radical opinions that usually attract the largest crowds. Rationality is the biggest victim of social media, and moderates of all stripes are essentially drowned out by torrents of venom.
A dozen years ago, I was heading a film forum on Netease, then one of the three biggest portal sites in China. I made it a rule that participants could express any opinion on any movie, but had to back up their view with reasoning. Simply saying “this movie sucks” or “it’s the greatest film ever made” wouldn’t do. Actually I had an abhorrence of that kind of vociferation. If you truly believe this is either the best or worst you’ve ever seen, you won’t be short of words for arguments.
That bulletin board of mine became something of an anomaly. It did not have the biggest following, but the most devoted. But for a website, it’s the number of participants that matters, not the quality of the discussion.
That site was only about movies. Had it been about politics or sports, you can rest assured that cries of killing would have been the norm, more or less.
Some worry about online antagonism spilling over to the physical world. There have been cases of online celebrities of different political factions who met to duel it out at the southern gate of Beijing’s Chaoyang Park. For the most part, the combustible kind tend to appear docile and soft-spoken in real life. They may not even be able to make a coherent argument in a debate with their opponents, let alone pick a fistfight.
This duality is often seen as a reason, rather than a pretext, for their online stridency. They are the two sides of the same coin. Because they are usually restrained in manner and speech in the physical world, by personality or by necessity, they have to find an outlet for their pent-up emotions, and what better conduit than an anonymous social site? You can become a braggadocio and play the role of a superhero in vanquishing your foes in whatever manner you can dream up.
Then there is the penchant for hyperbole, which goes much further than the Internet. Chinese is a flowery language with strong literary roots. Being plainspoken is rarely embraced as a virtue, especially for the educated. There were descriptions of “a million-strong army” in history books when the total population of that particular jurisdiction had less than 1 million residents. Confucius was so tall that he would have towered over Yao Ming ― if you take the numbers literally.
In the early 1990s when I was in the United States, I read a news story about a Chinese student leaving a voice message on a classmate’s phone, saying he would have him “die in 10,000 pieces and with no place for burial.” Naturally it conjured up a gruesome picture of attempted murder. In Chinese this simply means “You, go die! You shit!” If he had said, “I wouldn’t shed a tear if you vanished from the face of the Earth,” he would not have got into legal trouble. (He was promptly arrested and charged with attempted murder.)
Again, that was an example of someone blowing a fuse in a most inappropriate way. The language made it seem worse than it actually was. Sure, there are stories of classmates killing each other, as in the recent case of a Fudan University student poisoning his roommate. But I doubt that guy threw a fit before he put poison into the water cooler. For one thing, his fury would have been a warning. People who kill usually do it quietly.
The bombastic style of some parts of the Chinese language is a heritage that has been passed down to us through political slogans and costume dramas. Before we learned the art of understatement and deadpan humor, which have also found a few exponents online, the Internet had become a breeding ground for floridity. Only this time it was for blustery rages that are considered a menace to the public.
By Raymond Zhou