What’s in an Eye-roll?

When Liang Xiangyi’s vigorous eye-roll at a fellow reporter’s rambling, obsequious, and apparently scripted question was captured in a live broadcast from a press conference at this month’s political assemblies, the moment exploded across Chinese with a torrent of tribute memes, and heavy not far behind. A leaked directive warned on March 13 that "all media personnel are prohibited from discussing the Two Sessions blue-clothed reporter incident on social media. Anything already posted must be deleted. Without exception, websites must not hype the episode."

In one of the many Weibo posts subsequently deleted, Global Times editor Hu Xijin expressed hope that the censors would exercise restraint over the episode, which he described as a harmlessly entertaining sideshow. In a subsequent vlog, Hu argued that the incident was "very normal," and that any hunt for political implications was "stretching it a bit. These interpretations are not the basis of public opinion, but rather reflect the sensitivities of a select few. Most Chinese netizens just saw it as amusing."

But many reactions to the incident—not least the censors’—suggest that in puncturing the long-winded and carefully stage-managed proceedings, the eye-roll had indeed tapped something deeper than mere amusement. It came amid proceedings that set a rubber stamp on the abolition of presidential term limits, potentially allowing to retain all of his formal titles for life, and rolling back the limited institutionalization of the leadership succession that had characterized the post-Mao era. While some form of extended rule had long been anticipated, the move sparked deep anxiety among many Chinese, a tension for which Liang Xiangyi’s eye-roll provided some degree of release.

That the episode had struck a deeper chord was hinted at by a group photo including Peking University Law School faculty (formerly prominent liberal and now social media exile He Weifang among them) pointedly rolling their eyes in unison:

PKU Law School professors’ group "eye-roll" photo has been quickly doing the rounds online, reflecting the fact that "eye-rolling" is a kind of societal reaction. At this year’s Two Sessions, Xi Jinping did not hesitate to set China’s political system back 40 years in order to fulfill his own "Chinese dream." Rolling their eyes is all people can do.

CDT Chinese editors have gathered some responses to the photo.

In a Deutsche Welle column, commentator Chang Ping described the response in similar terms:

[…] People have never needed eye-rolls as much as they do now: they thirst for them, love them, scramble to offer their eye-rolls to the Two Sessions, to the great Party and its brilliant leaders. You even hear people reciting poetry: "The dark night gave me dark eyes, but at least I can roll them." [A reference to Gu Cheng’s poem A Generation: "The dark night gave me dark eyes, but I use them to seek the light."] You can hear them sing: "Having slept for a hundred years, the people gradually awaken, opening their eyes, and rolling them …." [A reference to "The Great Wall Never Falls," the opening theme of martial arts TV drama Huo Yanjia.] [Chinese]

Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam compiled more responses in this vein:

“Deprived of free speech, ancient people blink their eyes as secret codes. In the new era, we have the freedom to roll our eyes.”

The pair of rolling eyes is epic. It has triggered people’s laughter and ruined the sacred temple of carefully prepared and staged material. It is like a pin stabbing into the butt of the era, a rat running around in a banquet hall. This pair of rolling eyes will become an epic, while other self-designated epics are rotting away. The rolling eyes are like a bolt of lightening that destroys tens of thousands expressions of praise and outshines speeches made by hundreds of thousands of brain-dead people. History will praise it. [Source]

Another:

How many battlefields have the children of officials and businessmen taken to? Those sent to their deaths are all the descendants of the masses who’ve been tyrannized and exploited in real life! The interests and wealth they protect flow back to the officials and businessmen, and still the families of the victims are exploited and tyrannized! Who do the masses owe? The nation is artificially constructed. The government has wrecked the masses’ destiny! Can anyone deny it?

[Pictured calligraphy] The people have the right to roll their eyes.

The Wall Street Journal’s Te-Ping Chen and Chun Han Wong quoted Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan as saying that "it was like [Liang] was expressing frustration on behalf of the rest of us," and Washington-based commentator Qin Weiping as describing her as "like an innocent child who blurted out that the emperor has no clothes," allowing “ordinary people with no opportunity to participate in politics to express their scorn and discontent in a roundabout way."

In a guest post at Jichang Lulu‘s blog, the University of Pennsylvania’s Victor H. Mair presented some of the "tremendous amount of materials about the ‘epic eye-roll’ incident" he had gathered, including one comment that "the whites of [Liang’s] eyes reflected how we, the youth of China, are weary of the ugliness of the political ecology of China." Delivering his own verdict, he wrote that "the rolling of the eyes incident is not a simple matter. I think that it will have long and lasting implications for the CCP and the PRC. In my estimation, ultimately it will be one of the most celebrated events of the Xi reign."

Much of Mair’s focus, both there and in an earlier post at Language Log, is on another significant aspect of the episode: the light it shed on China’s opaque and increasingly aggressive overseas media presence and how it feeds back into its domestic propaganda, at a time when China’s overseas influence operations are coming under mounting scrutiny. (This was also the focus of Chang Ping’s above-linked Deutsche Welle article.) From Language Log:

You can see that Ms. Blue was uncomfortable almost from the very beginning of Ms. Red’s long question. Ms. Red was a known, and not well-liked, quantity before this incendiary encounter at the NPC. Indeed, she used to work for China Central Television (CCTV) and was fond of boasting of her stellar appearance and overall quality. She calls herself "Liǎnghuì qìzhí jiě 两会气质姐" ("Miss Elegant of the Two Sessions").

[…] Ms. Liang was fully aware that Ms. Red was a fake foreigner in the employ of the Chinese government and that her softball questions were worthless for stimulating useful discussion with the official to whom they were addressed. Ms. Zhang’s allegiance is obvious from her reference to "our country". Moreover, Ms. Liang clearly felt extremely uncomfortable with the unprofessional, zuòzuo 做作 ("affected") manner of Ms. Zhang. [Source]

One of the anonymous correspondents Mair quoted at Jichang Lulu’s blog went into greater depth:

The journalist in red is Miss Zhang Huijun 张慧君. Supposedly she is the deputy director of a TV station in the states called 全美电视台. One of my friends did some research and found out this 全美电视台 is very sketchy. Its full name is: American Multimedia Television USA, AMTV. It’s registered address is a cheap rental apartment in Suburban Los Angeles. Its website looks very outdated and doesn’t have any hits at all. All the news videos on its website have so few views. The most viewed news video generates about 700 views, which is basically nothing. If you google this TV station and its registered company, there is no information about it on Linkedin, Glassdoor, and other major legit websites for company hiring and reviewing purposes. But this Miss Zhang Huijun shows up quite frequently during this congress meeting in Beijing. She calls herself 两会气质姐 (Miss Elegant of the Congress Meeting). She also hosted other events supporting China’s communist party in the past. Many people say her appearance and her question are arranged(so-called 伪外媒 [“fake ”]} by the CCP so that it looks like overseas Chinese are all supporting CCP and this Congress Meeting. It’s very interesting. My friend who did the research wrote a journal about this right after the video was aired. But it was quickly marked as “content violation” by WeChat and got deleted. [Source]

Scrutiny of AMTV following the eye-roll has led to a petition to the White House calling for an official investigation into it.

Quartz’ Zheping Huang also examined this side of the story:

News conferences are a major component of China’s political facade, mostly used as platforms to air views that present China in a favorable light. Officials usually cherry-pick questions from publications that are affiliated with or have close relations to the party, while avoiding calling on journalists from mainstream foreign outlets. Zhang, who was supposed to represent foreign media, hails from American Multimedia Television USA in Los Angeles, which has partnered with China’s state broadcaster in the past. When asking her long-winded question, Zhang chose to refer to China as “our country” in an elevated tone.

The BBC’s China correspondent, Stephen McDonell, complained in a column yesterday (March 13) about Chinese journalists who pose softball questions during “the one opportunity each year” the media gets to face foreign minister Wang Yi during the Two Sessions. According to McDonell’s account, none of the questions this year had anything to do with contentious issues including North Korea, the South China Sea, and US-China trade tensions. [Source]

Beyond the incident itself, opinion has also been divided on the significance of the heavy-handed official reaction. Responding to rumors that the episode had been deemed a "political incident," and that over a hundred press credentials had been revoked, ANU’s Rory Medcalf tweeted:

Koreas expert and Liang’s fellow viral superstar Robert Kelly agreed:

Foreign Policy’s James Palmer, who worked for several years as an editor at Global Times, was more skeptical: