Fireworks on Chinese Social Media Follow Death of Iranian President Raisi

Following Monday’s news of a late-night helicopter crash in heavy fog that killed Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six others (including crew members), some Chinese social media users took note of Raisi’s repressive track record, his past interactions with Chinese leaders and institutions, and even rumored reports of celebrations and fireworks among Raisi’s critics in Tehran. While Chinese state media has been filled with condolences and promises of bolstering ties with Iran, social media platforms have seen some more critical comments and assessments. CDT editors have archived several articles about Raisi and a collection of social media comments, some quite scathing.

Outspoken writer Feng Hongping, who blogs as 风慢慢 (Fēng mànmàn), posted a WeChat article titled “Ebrahim Raisi: A Life of Brutality,” cataloging Raisi’s rise as a protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; his role in the 1988 executions of thousands of political prisoners (which earned him the moniker “the butcher of Tehran”); and evidence of the Raisi-led government’s brutal suppression of 2022’s widespread public protests against political and religious oppression in Iran. (The protests were sparked by the death in police custody of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, after she was arrested for wearing an “improper” hijab.) This track record, writes Feng, means that “when news of the helicopter crash surfaced […,] people were actually worried about the possibility of there being survivors. When [Raisi’s] death was confirmed, fireworks were set off all across Iran.” Feng notes that Raisi’s death will not bring political change to Iran, as his successor is likely to be even more “brutal and conservative.” “Fireworks are easy to extinguish,” Feng concludes, “but at least there is a moment worth celebrating.”

An article from WeChat account 林中的维吉尔 (lín zhōng de Wéijíěr, “Virgil in the Woods,” a backup account for the better-known WeChat account “Cicero by the Seaside”) gives some historical and religious background on Iranian politics, and asks what effect Raisi’s death might have on Iran’s younger progressives. The author also highlights some of the problems facing Iran today, including an economy weakened by U.S. sanctions, a depreciated currency, record low voter turnout (after moderate and progressive candidates were effectively excluded from the country’s parliamentary elections), and now, uncertainty about Iran’s political succession.

In “Fireworks Over Iranian Cities,” WeChat account 木白文笔平平 (Mù Bái wénbǐ píngpíng, “Mu Bai’s writing is mediocre”) contrasts a spate of Douyin videos by Chinese influencers tearfully discussing the fatal helicopter crash with reports of cheering and fireworks in some Iranian cities. The author delves into Iran’s 2022 protest movement, contemporary political repression, economic privation, and the many issues that Iranian citizens are not allowed to speak about in daily life, and concludes that the fireworks were a way of expressing dissent and relieving some psychological pressure. The article ends with this quote from a man in Shanghai: “A person’s life is judged after their death. What matters isn’t what is said about a person when they are alive, but what is said about them after they have died.”

Because initial Chinese state media reports used the term “hard landing” (硬着陆, yìngzhuólù) rather than “crash” (坠机, zhuìjī) to describe the helicopter accident, some netizens have continued to use the term in jest. Other social media users managed to dig up a news article about President Raisi receiving an honorary professorship at Peking University (PKU) in February of 2023. At the time, online public response to news of the honorary professorship was so negative—one commenter called it “Peking University’s everlasting shame,” while another dubbed it “solidifying the Axis of Evil”—that Weibo disabled comments for several related hashtags. Now some Chinese netizens have referenced an old headline from Peking University’s WeChat account (“Peking University Honorary Professor, +1”) and changed it to read “Peking University Honorary Professor, -1” in reference to Raisi’s death. CDT editors have archived a number of Chinese-language comments from Weibo and X (formerly Twitter) in response to the helicopter crash, President Raisi’s demise, and the relationship between China and Iran. Some of the comments evoke sentiments expressed after Shinzo Abe’s assassination in July of 2022, when the Weibo hashtag #可惜不是你 (#Too bad it wasn’t you) attracted a flood of darkly critical messages bemoaning the fact that it was Abe, rather than Xi, who had died:

老猪说事儿: RIP, Professor Raisi.

泰戈2019: A fiendishly famous professor has made a hard landing. Shouldn’t PKU issue an obituary or something like that?

燕燕姐粉丝团: Alas, he is no more! The Chinese people have lost a PKU professor.

IN汉中: Shocking. PKU professor dies in a hard landing.

微斯人s: For the first time in human history, everyone is worried that there will be survivors in an air crash.

Luciana95963911: Rare are those whose deaths are celebrated by an entire nation, but even rarer, those whose deaths are celebrated by the entire world!

越王楼村夫老王: Being a Peking University professor is more dangerous than you might think.

XX海底世界: It’s all America’s fault. Because of sanctions, they couldn’t buy American Imperialist helicopters.

roc191174: Too bad it wasn’t you.

Mlgbsmsd: “Why do good things always happen to other people?” [Chinese]


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