Online censorship has again inspired netizens to stage a collective act of digital disobedience. In this case, a young policewoman was sentenced to over a decade in prison after her former “lovers,” a clique of powerful county officials, accused her of extortion. As an act of protest at the injustice of her case and official censorship of netizen outrage, one WeChat account organized an online protest poetry exhibition.
In the government’s telling (shared on Weibo), a series of powerful officials in Jiangsu Province’s Guannan County had sexual relations with then 19-year-old Xu Yan soon after she joined the local police force. Between 2014 and 2019, Xu and her family extorted nine men (a deputy head of the Public Security Bureau, three separate police station chiefs, an elementary school principal, the vice-head of the township hospital, and three other men in less prominent positions) out of approximately $500,000 by demanding restitution for pregnancy and housing. In a secret 2020 trial, Xu was sentenced to 13 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of approximately $750,000. It wasn’t until March 2021 that details of the case were leaked online by Zhang Xinnian, a lawyer. They quickly went viral.
The public exploded with anger after learning that the officials had recast themselves as “victims” and sent their former lover to prison. Lawyers noted that the sentence was unusually harsh and that demanding payment for accidental pregnancies—a tradition in the countryside—is not illegal. Some saw Xu’s case as an analogue to dissidents “being johnned”: another use of sex to silence people the state wants quiet. Weibo commentators voiced similar skepticism about the case: “How did the men who lured a young policewoman into sex become the victims?” asked one commentator. One added, “If this were a normal case of extramarital sex (which it obviously isn’t), it’s almost impossible to imagine that these ‘victims’ would give such considerable sums (nearly all of which exceeded their annual salaries) in private compensation.” The absurdity of the government’s position was also a topic of discussion: “This brings to mind a line from one of Old Guo Degang’s cross-talk shows: ‘During the day, prosecute the Three Vulgarities. At night, pursue them,’” read one comment.
Xu’s Father: After the case came to light, my wife told me that in, I think it was March of 2019, the vice deputy of the public security bureau took my daughter’s phone and called my wife. In this phone call he laid out his relationship with my daughter, and he said that she was pregnant. He promised that he would divorce his wife and marry my daughter, but he wasn’t telling the truth. He was playing my daughter. My daughter broke up with him, and he began pestering her asking to meet up.
Xu’s Mother: At the time, I told Liu that as long as my daughter doesn’t get into trouble it’s fine, but if she does I’ll never forgive you. He said he’ll make sure this gets handled well.
[…]Xu’s Father: They’re all public officials. They shouldn’t have bullied my daughter. The money they voluntarily gave my daughter was the price of lost youth, how could you say it was extortion? If you say my daughter was an extortionist, why didn’t they go to the police when it happened? Some of them are policemen themselves. My daughter never forced money out of their pockets. The way they bullied and played my daughter means that they, as public officials, are the ones in the wrong. You can’t dump the entire bucket of shit on my daughter’s head alone. [Chinese]
Censors quickly took to removing posts on the subject but they could not stop the tide of commentary. Even Xinhua News issued a statement: “In the face of public skepticism, solely deleting posts is not a way to solve the issue; a public accounting is the only correct measure.”
To avoid censorship and evoke the tragedy of Xu’s plight, online commentators took to literary allusion. One cartoon re-imagined a scene from the Ming Dynasty novel “The Plum in the Golden Vase.” In the novel, rapaciously lusty official Ximen Qing and his married lover Pan Jinlian conspire to kill Pan’s husband. In the re-imagined telling, Ximen Qing turns on his paramour. It’s as if “a gang of Ximen Qings have brought Pan Jinlian to court,” said one anonymous Weibo user.
A gang of Ximen Qings pronounces: “The whore Pan Jinlian/ is fined 50,000 taels/ and banished beyond 3,000 miles”
Another viral image recast Xu Yan as Su San, a tragic figure in a famous Peking Opera scene “Escorting the Woman to Prison” in which Su is tricked into being a concubine and framed for her master’s murder:
Xu Yan left Nanguan County, all the officials have had their turn,
Alone in front of prison, $500,000 has earned her 13 years,
I kept silent as my heart rent, but the young girl can’t stand it anymore,
My passing friends please hear my words, are all officials corrupt for flesh and money?
The literary criticism reached an apotheosis after the WeChat account “@向承美是一件当代艺术作品” organized an online poetry competition that invited readers to submit riffs on the Tang-dynasty classic “Ascending the Stork Tower.” The first line of the original poem, “Over the mountains, the white sun daily sets,” is homophonous with the phrase for “delete everything within the day.” (Both read bairi yi shan jin in pinyin.) The competition went viral and the account collected over 100 poems. CDT has translated a small sample of the poems from the extemporaneous exhibition:
Delete everything within the day, the nine officials have scurried away.
After a few months of play, they’ve sent the girl for a prison stay.
[…] Delete everything within the day, for flesh you must repay
Impoverished dreams of $500,000, turns into a prison stay
[…] Delete everything within the day, Uncle Policeman is admirably dissolute.
In order to hide from thousand-mile-gazes, they scheme in the lawyer’s towers. [Chinese]
Her sentencing also elicited criticism of the sensationalist media coverage that played up Xu’s sexuality and obscured the power dynamics involved in the case. CDT translated portions of an essay by Yu Shaolei, a former editor at the pioneering Southern Metropolis Daily:
In front of those high officials, the policewoman is powerless. Even if the extortion is all proved to be true, it’s still just the revenge of the powerless.
After all, “who slept with who” is not in the purview of the law nor the media. It’s not hard to see a voyeuristic thrill in news coverage that has raised popular vulgarities into the headlines.
So, saying “the policewoman slept with x-amount of public officials” is to mindlessly stand with the so-called “victims”—which is really the side of the debauched—while slut-shaming a young policewoman who has already paid a terrible price. [Chinese]