Translation: Popular Science Platform Shut Down After Nationalistic Backlash

A Chinese science media platform has suspended operations after being accused of bias against China. PaperClip (回形针), a Beijing-based platform known for popular science videos, has been caught in a nationalistic uproar in recent months. Last week, blogger @赛雷话金 posted a video in which he accused two former PaperClip staffers of being “anti-China.” The video contained screenshots showing that one former staffer had taken to Twitter to express her support for the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The other staffer is said to have worked at a U.S. military lab after leaving his job at PaperClip. Both people have since changed their social media account settings to private. PaperClip has issued an apology and ceased operation until further notice.

This is not the first time that PaperClip got caught in a nationalistic backlash. The platform produces sleek and concise animated videos that explain science topics. It gained popularity last year in February for their video explainer on COVID-19. Shortly afterwards, however, they drew criticism for a video in which they linked meat consumption to deforestation and urged Chinese consumers to be more mindful of their environmental footprint. Because the video was produced in partnership with World Wildlife Fund, an international NGO, some further accused PaperClip of being unpatriotic, some even speculating that PaperClip was conducting “infiltration” on behalf of “foreign forces.” Others took issue with another video by PaperClip in which a map of China did not include Taiwan. Following these controversies, PaperClip apologized and suspended operation for a few weeks last year.

On Saturday, PaperClip said that it would cease operation until further notice. It also promised to invite experts from the mainstream media to review their content, and retrain their staff.

PaperClip is not the only science channel to fall victim to nationalist backlash in recent weeks. In late May, prominent Weibo user Wuheqilin (@乌合麒麟) shared a post that accused Japanese troops of committing atrocities against Chinese civilians during WWII. @乌合麒麟 has 2.8 million followers and is known for his nationalistic stance. Science blogger @Ent_evo chimed in and pointed out what he perceived to be inconsistencies in the original post. He soon found himself drowning in waves of criticism. A popular science account Science Squirrel Club (科学松鼠会), to which @Ent_evo was a contributor, briefly came to his defense, before having to apologize and cut ties. The two accounts each had around four million followers before being shut down by Weibo.

Other platforms that specialize in science, medicine, and culture have also been subjected to similar attacks. In 2014, Elephant Magazine (大象公会), a media platform known for articles on culture and art, was briefly shut down on WeChat. Its founder suspected that articles they shared about Xinjiang were to blame. DXY (丁香医生), a platform that specializes in medicine and healthcare, has long been criticized for “biases against Chinese traditional medicine.” [See a recent CDT translation of another article from DXY on the use of “conversion therapy” on gay and trans children.]

Liu Su, a botanist and science writer, recently took to Weibo to his thoughts about the recent take-downs of these science education platforms, and the future of truth and patriotic fervor in the Chinese media space. The post has been translated in full by CDT:

Liu Su: The Times Have Changed, and So Have I

In March, the Tencent News mobile app added a “recommended reading” feature, where users with a nose for newsworthiness have the ability to “flip” stories so that they are more likely to show up in regular users’ feeds. This can, to some extent, mitigate the voluminous flood of garbage information.

I’ve known one of the editors at Tencent News for quite a while, and they invited me to be their “science education officer” and recommend articles. I said yes. Sina Weibo is a ghost of its former self, so it’s good to have another source of relatively clean information.

Now I’m on the app every day. But my editor must be disappointed, because I share very little original content, and most of the stories I “flip” are about current affairs and culture, not science. There’s one main reason for this: I am fairly familiar with the pop science world, and I find all kinds of errors that I’m just not willing to pass along to readers.

For example, today I came across the headline “What Is Tumbleweed, and Why Is It All Over America, But Not China?” The reason tumbleweed has become a noxious weed in the American West, the article claims, is that Americans don’t eat it. Whereas in China, “It doesn’t matter if the plant grows ‘knives,’ if it’s edible, we’ll eat it.” China isn’t inundated with tumbleweed because we’ve eaten it all, just like crayfish.

This is pure, unadulterated horse manure. The “tumbleweed” referred to in this article is Kali tragus, a plant in the family Amaranthaceae (formerly Chenopodiaceae), which research suggests may not be a single species but a collection of morphologically similar “cryptic” species, and for which there is no proper classification. K. tragus is native to the Eurasian mainland, and is distributed in a number of provinces and regions in China. It was introduced to the United States in the late 19th century, quickly spreading in parts of the U.S. and Canada. If you know the tiniest amount about invasive species, you know that plants don’t become invasive because “no one eats them.” It’s because their new environment offers favorable growing conditions and lacks the diseases and pests of its native range.

While K. tragus is edible when it’s young and tender, it’s not exactly what you’d call a delicacy. And like many other plants in the same family (including vegetables with a long history of cultivation, such as amaranth and spinach), they are high in oxalic acid, so they’re not even that good for you. This article states that “people love to use this [plant] as a wild herb, and commonly eaten in northern China… There are over a hundred ways to prepare it.” Utter nonsense. If it’s that good, why don’t they sell it at the grocery store?

Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), while much tastier than tumbleweed, cannot be eaten into submission. They are truly invasive here in China, and they are wreaking environmental havoc in Yunnan and other provinces. The reason is simple: Most of the crayfish we eat are farmed, first because it’s cheap, and second because humans can control the quality. It costs a lot to catch crayfish in the wild, and because they are omnivorous, they may contain toxins. Anyone who says “I’ll go to Yunnan and wipe out this invasive species” is all talk and no action.

But I have to admit, in my rush to seize the moment I’ve gotten addicted to talking, too. As Dr. Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University once said, nowadays when we talk about history, we talk about politics. Actually, it goes far beyond history: when we talk about science, we talk about politics. And if you don’t talk about politics, it doesn’t matter if you’re the Science Squirrel Club (科学松鼠会) or PaperClip (回形针), you will be smashed under the iron fist of the people. A few years ago, this was inconceivable, but history moves fast. You can’t help but wonder, what will things be like a few years from now?

The first thing that comes to my mind is that, while pop science stories like “why is the ocean blue” and “how many parts are there to the Chinese space station” are ubiquitous, any challenge to a narrative that has risen to the level of folk belief is unlikely to survive. “Yuan Longping made sure the Chinese people never went hungry” is one such simple belief. If you challenge this, people will keep reporting your article until it disappears, and your Weibo account will be put in a little dark room for 15 days. After that, who knows, maybe they’ll put you in a little dark room for 15 days.

Or take the claim that you can’t wish someone a happy Dragon Boat Festival, you can only wish them good health. This saying came out of the digital blue in 2015, but just a few years later it has already become a “folk custom.” I can still make a wisecrack about it for now, but who knows, maybe in the future you won’t even get halfway through your wisecrack before they mock 18 generations of your ancestors.

Or “cherry trees are Chinese.” I’m glad that there were still some media platforms willing to publish my refutation of this a few years back. In spring 2020 I did a livestream for the Chen Shan Botanical Garden in Shanghai, and mentioned the relevant facts without a hitch. But when I did the livestream this year I was told not to mention Japan, and I was a very good boy and did as I was told. Obviously, no crisis ensued. In the future, who knows, maybe I’ll have to state clearly that cherry trees come from China. If your patriotism isn’t absolute, you are absolutely unpatriotic.

Or how about the idea that “any invasive species will be gobbled up by our insatiable nation?” I can criticize it now, but maybe in the future I’ll be gobbled up by… it’s too terrifying to finish this sentence.

Two days ago, Guokr published a piece by Wang Dapeng, an associate researcher at the China Research Institute for Science Popularization, saying that responsible science education must listen to and respect the values of the public. “The ability to connect scientific questions to cherished public values is a key factor in determining the efficacy of science education.” There’s nothing wrong with this statement. In communication studies, it’s cliché. But I would like to say, as I said more than ten years ago, that science education in China should be split into two camps, one for the “leftists” and one for the “rightists”; and we need more in the “leftist” camp. After all these years, I can’t say how much more we have in the “leftist” camp, but clearly the “rightist” camp is being pushed to the margins. Did science writers not understand Wang’s logic before? No, it’s just that the times have changed.

This year, my wife has warned me many times about “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” online, that I need to think of the family and set a good example for the next generation. I wasn’t convinced at first, but by now I’ve come around to her argument. In the end, science education is something I do for myself, for my own pursuit of knowledge. I have to understand the thing myself, that’s the first step, before I can think of sharing it with others. This being the case, I probably won’t keep doing science education. It will save me the second step. Anyway, it won’t keep me from learning.

As for the new era of science education, that’s for the young folks to take care of. Just as with history, as long as there is humanity, there will be science education in some shape or form. The pursuit will never perish. [Chinese]

Yakexi contributed to this post.


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