Beijing Mourns “Father of Hybrid Rice” Yuan Longping as it Censors Critical Remarks

This weekend, the Chinese public mourned the passing of Yuan Longping, the Chinese agronomist whose scientific breakthroughs in rice development helped to usher in the Green Revolution that ended famine in large parts of the world. Yuan, who was awarded China’s highest official honor in 2019, passed away on Saturday in Changsha at the age of 90. Throngs of citizens and public officials mourned his passing and celebrated his achievements, but authorities were also quick to censor criticism and arrest individuals who insulted him online. The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher and Chris Buckley reported Yuan’s obituary:

Mr. Yuan’s research made him a national hero and a symbol of dogged scientific pursuit in China. His death triggered messages of grief across the country, where Mr. Yuan — slight, elfin-featured and wizened in old age — was a celebrity. Hundreds left flowers at the funeral home where his body was being kept.

Mr. Yuan made two major discoveries in hybrid rice cultivation, said Jauhar Ali, the senior scientist for hybrid rice breeding at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, the Philippines. Those discoveries, in the early 1970s — together with breakthroughs in wheat cultivation in the ’50s and ’60s by Norman Borlaug, an American plant scientist — helped create the Green Revolution of steeply rising harvests and an end to famine in most of the world.

[…] Mr. Yuan chose to specialize in crop genetics at a time when the subject was an ideological minefield in China. Mao Zedong had embraced the doctrines of Soviet scientists who rejected modern genetics and maintained that genes could be directly rewired by altering environmental conditions, such as the temperature. They claimed this would open the way to dramatic rises in crop yields.

[…] His commitment to the field took on greater urgency from the late 1950s, when Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward — his frenzied effort to collectivize agriculture and jump-start steel production — plunged China into the worst famine of modern times, killing tens of millions. Mr. Yuan said he saw the bodies of at least five people who had died of starvation by the roadside or in fields.

[…] Unusually for such a prominent figure, though, Mr. Yuan never joined the Chinese Communist Party. “I don’t understand politics,” he told a Chinese magazine in 2013. [Source]

South China Morning Post’s Holly Chik reported on the swell of tributes to Yuan across China:

In the city of Changsha where Yuan, “the father of hybrid rice”, was hospitalised before his death, traffic police had to disperse crowds at the Mingyangshan funeral home, where a memorial service will be held for Yuan on Monday morning, according to local media reports.

[…] President Xi Jinping sent his condolences to Yuan’s family through the Communist Party branch in Hunan province, lauding Yuan’s contribution to China’s food security, state news agency Xinhua reported on Sunday.

Xinhua also ran a rare commentary on Saturday suggesting the country fly the national flag at half-mast to honour the scientist.

The online Chinese world, including major news websites and social media platforms from Weibo to WeChat, were filled with tributes to Yuan in a rare spontaneous nationwide expression of sorrow – a phenomenon usually only seen with the death of a political heavyweight such as former premier Zhou Enlai and former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

The United Nations praised Yuan for helping improve food security and eliminating poverty in China. [Source]

But amid the outpouring of support for Yuan, messages and tributes from the public were closely scrutinized by authorities. At least one interview with Yuan, where he was spoke critically of the Cultural Revolution, was reportedly censored on social media. Chinese state-affiliated tabloid Global Times reported that several people were arrested for insulting Yuan online:

At least three netizens were detained for defaming Yuan Longping, revered as the “Father of Hybrid Rice” in China, who passed away on Saturday, as the whole nation mourns his death at the age of 91.

Sina Weibo also decided to shut down permanently the accounts of 68 users who were found to have “reported false information” or “spread rumors, insults and attacks” on Yuan, according to a statement made by Weibo on Monday.

Two netizens, one in Beijing and another in North China’s Tianjin Municipality, were both found to have posted a number of insulting remarks about Yuan on Wechat on Saturday, which were reported to police. [Source]

But it was not only netizens’ comments that were being closely scrutinized. A fumble by state broadcaster CCTV that saw Yuan’s obituary prematurely published on social media led to a large public outcry. CCTV later retracted the report and issued an apology, but not before the obituary was reposted by dozens of media outlets. This generated confusion and harsh criticism on Chinese social media, with some netizens going so far as to accuse the broadcaster of being beholden to “foreign forces“—a catch-all scapegoat that, in this case, raised eyebrows for being directed at one of China’s most official media organs.

Nationalistic anger focused at state-affiliated media has been a persistent issue recently–most significantly with the public backlash against Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin after he defended an underling who denounced an offensive post by an official media account–leading some to reflect on the readiness of netizens to turn against others in the name of nationalism. Author and commentator Mr. Shen Maohua (better known as his pen name Wei Zhou), wrote in Chinese about why people rush to blame “foreign forces” after the state-media’s fumble. CDT has translated an excerpt:

Such plot-twists have become all too familiar. What’s intriguing, though, is how people reacted after the misinformation was debunked: Instead of questioning the journalistic standards, many suspected that the “spread of rumor” was a destructive act launched by “foreign forces.” “Did CGTN take money from the Americans?” people asked in ridicule. Some even used phrases like “the imperialists will never stop trying to annihilate us.”

Since all destructive powers are or belong to “foreign forces,” the implicit logic goes like this: those “inside” China must remain united. Any dissent or resistance, in one way or another, can be seen as “passing ammunition (to the enemies)” and helping the enemies “divide and dismember us from within.” Such emotions, once elicited, are so effective that they become the ultimate weapon to immediately shut people up.

Many people don’t even realize the these so-called “foreign forces” are also a conspiracy theory. It creates this illusion that might make the majority happy: There is no division among “us.” All dissenting voices, in one way or another, are results of manipulation by foreign enemies. Thus, painful self-reflection is avoided. [Chinese]

Translation by Yakexi.


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