“Joke of the Year”: Nationalist Pundit Sima Nan Says He “Strives to Promote Friendly Sino-American Relations”

As Chinese state media tone down their anti-U.S. rhetoric and promote the Weibo hashtag #感受中美民意暖流# (#Experience the Warm Current of Public Opinion on Sino-American Relations) in recognition of the Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit in San Francisco, China’s nationalist pundits have followed suit. The most notable example is Sima Nan, whose fiery blasts against the U.S. have earned him legions of fans, as well as countless critics. His recent claim that he “strives to promote friendly Sino-American relations” was met with incredulity by many online, including the authors of the two essays below.

A screen-grab of a TV program featuring Sima Nan, wearing a dark suit jacket and white shirt, sitting in front of a wall of books in bookcases. 
Sima Nan declares, “I strive to promote friendly Sino-American relations.”

Over the years, Sima Nan has been the subject of a number of controversies, some of which he provoked, and others that were simply bad luck. During a visit to the U.S. in early 2012, he got his head caught between the escalator railing and the wall at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., necessitating a trip to the hospital and a neck brace. This prompted some pointed comment on the fact that the U.S. had been willing to grant a visa to such a strident critic. Later that year, after Sima Nan finished a lecture at Hainan University, a student hurled a shoe at him, earning cheers from others in the audience. In 2014, his social media post about hobnobbing with a young passenger with a leather jacket and mohawk on a Beijing subway backfired, as the young man was clearly not a fan. And in July 2023, Sima Nan was ridiculed and accused of hypocrisy after social media posts showed the inveterate critic of the U.S. apparently enjoying himself at an American Independence Day party thrown by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

A recent WeChat essay “Shocking! Sima Nan: I Strive to Promote Friendly Sino-American Relations” marvels at the hawkish pundit’s sudden change of tune. Published by WeChat account @玖奌杂货店 (Jiǔdiǎn záhuòdiàn, “9:00 Grocery Store”), the essay includes an angry, screenshotted message from one of Sima Nan’s loyal supporters, as well as some jocular comments from dismayed readers: 

Sima Nan’s about-face happened quickly, faster than you could turn the page of a book. Practically overnight, he went from being an anti-American “verified online influencer” to an ambassador of Sino-American friendship, leaving many netizens confused:

“Sima Nan is anti-American on odd days, pro-American on even days, and on Sundays, he tries to reconcile the contradiction.” – Comment from a WeChat user in Jiangsu

“God invented a seven-day week (although I’m an atheist) and it’s running Sima Nan ragged. If only God would extend it to a ten-day week and give him a break.” – Comment from the same WeChat user in Jiangsu

“‘Frisbee Catcher Hu’ is no match for him!” – Comment from a WeChat user in Shanxi

[…] But while we’re on the topic, Sima Nan has performed this sort of sudden about-face more than once in recent years. On one televised program, he challenged, “When did I ever oppose the United States?” But on another program, he categorically stated, “I am definitely anti-American.” He once complained on TV about people spreading rumors online that he owned real estate in the U.S., but then in a later appearance, reluctantly admitted that he had indeed bought a house there.

To be honest, I feel quite sad for Sima Nan’s fans. I often receive invective-filled DMs from his fans, attempting to defend their hero:

“‘The Chinese people have sharp eyes.’ Sima Nan is a good man who loves his country and his Party, but you’re America-worshiping traitors who would sell out their own country!

“Although Sima Nan bought a house in the U.S., it doesn’t mean he’s being two-faced, so don’t slander him! Whatever our enemy opposes, we must support.”

[…] We should judge Sima Nan not only by what he says, but also by what he does. He has been a strident anti-American critic in the past, but he also bought a house in the U.S., and now he is “striving to promote friendly Sino-American relations.”

This may seem perverse, but Sima Nan is probably just the beginning. I’m guessing that we will begin to see many formerly anti-American online influencers following in Sima Nan’s footsteps and “promoting friendly relations between China and the U.S.” [Chinese]

In the essay “Joke of the Year: Sima Nan Says He Strives to Promote Friendly Sino-American Relations,” Wei Chunliang (魏春亮), author of the WeChat blog 亮见 (Liàng Jiàn), describes Sima Nan’s moral and rhetorical inconsistency. Illustrated with screenshots of Sima Nan’s contradictory pronouncements over the years, the essay notes the disconnect between the pundit’s often-uncompromising rhetoric and profit-seeking pragmatism, and marvels that so many of his loyalists are taken in by it.

A screen-grab shows Tang Guoqiang, playing a bearded Zhuge Liang, wearing a black gown and blue headdress and gesticulating angrily.
Screenshot from the 1994 televised series “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which famous Chinese character actor Tang Guoqiang, in the role of Zhuge Liang, shouts, “Never have I met anyone so brazenly shameless!”

The “anti-American warrior” said that he has always “promoted friendly relations between China and the U.S.” The smoothness with which he executed this 180-degree turn is truly astonishing.

When he spoke those words, he seemed to have forgotten his previous pronouncements:

“I wouldn’t go to America, that cursed place, even if you paid me. What would be the point?”

“Who’d want to live in a rotten, crime-ridden place like America?”

You can’t help but admire Sima Nan. He exhibits a sort of moral indifference that most people can only dream of. Neither his words nor his deeds seem to burden him with any uncertainty or sense of responsibility.

[…] On one television program, he stated, “No one in my family lives overseas.” But on another program, he pushed back, “Even if some of my family members are living in the U.S., so what?”

On one program, he criticized wealthy individuals who send their kids to study abroad at American colleges. On another program, he admitted, “I only have one kid who is studying in the U.S.” Then he changed the subject and asked, “What’s so wrong about getting a college education?”

Apparently, being anti-American is just a day job that allows him and his family to enjoy the comforts of American life.

[…] Of course you can continue to bash the U.S., even if you’ve got a home or investments there. But it’s impossible to own a home or invest in the U.S., while at the same time bashing it, and simultaneously appearing sincere. Those three things are incompatible, an impossible trinity. Even if you want them all, you can’t have all of them at once.

Sima Nan’s ability to navigate this impossible trinity with ease amply proves one thing: regardless of whether he’s bashing America, hating on America, supporting America, or (now) promoting friendly Sino-American relations, his motivation is nothing more than self-interest, opportunism, and taking full advantage of the situation in order to rake in as much money as he can.

Besides, there are so many fools in our society that if someone doesn’t deceive them, all their fervor and piety will go to waste. Anyone willing to toss some cheap, off-brand sausages into their hungry mouths will be treated as the God of the feast. Not only will they bow down to serve you, they’ll also compose hymns to you. [Chinese]


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