The Onion — “America’s finest news source” — is coming to China, proclaimed a September 2015 article on business and financial news outlet Jiemian.com.
“China has the best soil for growing onions,” CEO and president of The Onion Mike McAvoy told the website, before going on to praise Chinese journalists for their ability to use their imagination to fill in factual gaps.
A year and a half later, there is still no sign of The Onion in China. No surprises there — Jiemian’s article was itself a piece of satirical, fictitious news, or “onion news,” as such content has come to be known in China. In a country whose media is under close scrutiny by state regulators and where, like many other parts of the world today, anxiety about “fake news” is brewing, publishing satirical content that bends the truth is far from straightforward.
A screenshot of the Institute of Abnormal Affairs’ 2015 fictitious article about ‘The Onion’ coming to China.
But that doesn’t bother 24-year-old Wei Ye, an author of a fictitious news column on Jiemian called the “Institute of Abnormal Affairs.” Since kicking off the column with the September 2015 article, Wei, who describes himself as a novelist and not a journalist, has penned over 200 pieces tackling subjects ranging from lighthearted showbiz gossip to weightier social issues such as campus bullying and sexual abuse.
In light of law amendments enacted in November 2015 stipulating that people who spread fake news and rumors online can face criminal prosecution and up to seven years in prison, Wei says it all comes down to the way that fictitious content is presented. Unlike The Onion, which contains no disclaimers about its content being satirical, the articles in Wei’s column are followed by a footnote explaining that they “report completely or partly fictitious news events.”
Like all good satire, it isn’t fiction for fiction’s sake. “If I wanted to make up news, I could write an unlimited amount every day,” Wei tells Sixth Tone. “There’ll always be a real event, or a person, that is problematic or flawed somehow.” While he might not be able to employ the same degree of cutting satire as the The Onion in the U.S. or Private Eye in the U.K., he still believes there is a thirst for the fresh angle to current affairs that fictitious news provides; while staying within the confines of the law, his content is an antidote of sorts to the rigid propaganda pieces churned out by conventional media outlets.
Wei is not alone in his approach. Recent years have seen a number of similar outlets sprout up, many of which employ the “onion” label, albeit without any true affiliation with the U.S. site.
Fudan Onion is a public account on popular messaging app WeChat, and it is run by a student at Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges. Wang Minchao, a 23-year-old journalism master’s student, realized there was an appetite for humorous, fictitious news when his first article in March 2015 — about teachers issuing 110 F’s and 110 D’s to students on the school’s 110th anniversary — had more than 20,000 views in just one night.
Fudan Onion founder Wang Minchao poses for a picture. Coutesy of Wang Minchao
A fan of the Borowitz Report, a “Not the news” column in The New Yorker, Wang uses absurdity as a way to bring campus life and current affairs together. In another launch piece, he wrote that Fudan had decided to replace an iconic lawn with a soccer field, following a push last year from the highest levels of government to develop the nation’s soccer programs.
In choosing Fudan as the arena in which current affairs play out, Wang says his articles are less likely to get censored. “There are certain things that only people from Fudan will find funny,” he tells Sixth Tone. “The degree to which the content is shared beyond [Fudan] is therefore manageable.”
But Fudan Onion’s content has nonetheless managed to find its way off campus. Ten days after Wang’s first post in March 2015, an article saying that Fudan was to begin charging graduates who put the school’s name on their resumes with copyright infringement was taken as true by higher education media outlet MBAChina, which republished the article on its website. Wang panicked, deleted all existing articles, and posted a message to followers: “This account will stop publishing permanently.”
It didn’t, and Wang continues to post to this day, though new followers now receive a disclaimer: “Do not believe any of the content from this public account, excluding this notice.” Recent articles are more humorous than satirical; political content is fair game if it doesn’t concern China. In a review of the year 2017, for example, Wang wrote that Donald Trump’s presidential oath of office was declared invalid because the word “president” had been misspelled “precedent.”
“I’d like to be able to be both funny and satirical,” Wang says of his choice to move away from biting satire these days. “Humor is easy, but satire, if you want to do it well, is much more difficult.”
Up against the same lingering threat of censure, The Onion Daily, an account on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, has taken a similar tack. Run from Beijing by a 23-year-old man surnamed Zhang, it has amassed more than 850,000 followers since it was launched in 2013.
“I do it for fun,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone. “I’m not trying to tell my readers any particular message.” Though he is operating within the law — a disclaimer similar to Fudan Onion’s is pinned to the account’s homepage — he is anxious to protect his identity and therefore does not reveal his full name.
Like Wei, when Zhang does turn on the satire, it’s subtle. In a post to the blog during its early stages, when China was still operating under the one-child policy, Zhang poked fun at the sensitivities of the family planning authorities, writing about an imaginary universe in which they banned the popular TV program “Dad, Where Are We Going?” because its cute kid stars were making parents want to have more children. “This is the enemy of family planning!” the post quoted an irate (and fictional) official as saying.
Platforms like The Onion Daily, Fudan Onion, and the Institute of Abnormal Affairs enjoy moderate popularity, but they are unlikely to attain the same critical success as decades-old merchants of satire like The Onion and Private Eye. China’s strict control of the press is one factor, but another, believes Fudan Onion’s Wang, is that satire can only exist on the back of a solid, mature media industry. “The quality [of news in China] is still not high enough,” he says. “It hasn’t got to the stage where it can satisfy the demands of satire.”
A screenshot from a cached page shows the People’s Daily report on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being named The Onion’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ in 2012.
Insensitivity to irony was best illustrated in 2012, when Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily reprinted — in English and Chinese — an article from The Onion reporting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been named the year’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” The article, since deleted but cached here, also featured a 55-photo gallery showcasing the supreme leader’s good looks.
Therein lies the danger of satire, believes Huang Hu, a professor at Fudan’s journalism school who calls for a boycott of fictitious news. “It may be easy for us to verify, but there is always the possibility that news that mixes fish eyes with pearls will be taken as true and thereby endanger society,” he tells Sixth Tone. Such “non-news,” he says, “must not be allowed a seat at the sacred table of journalism.”
Yet while fictitious news may not constitute journalism, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of any value, argues Fudan’s associate professor of journalism Hong Bing. Referring to a recent article from the Institute of Abnormal Affairs reporting that ordinary citizens were to be barred from reviewing domestic films, he says that fictitious news’ “satirical and critical function is plain to see.” In actual news, movie review websites were slammed in a recent People’s Daily commentary for publishing negative reviews of homegrown films.
Hong also believes that the increasing strictness with which online content is monitored could endanger satirical news. “If a piece of innocuous ‘onion news’ were determined by the authorities to constitute rumor, that wouldn’t surprise me,” he says, adding that authors should be transparent about the fictitious nature of their work to reduce the risk of liability.
But Wei, who penned the article cited by Hong, remains optimistic about the future of satire in China and doesn’t subscribe to the belief that the country’s current climate prohibits the growth of onions. “There is no such thing as different soil in different countries,” he says. “We wanted to give [onion news] a try, and I think now we’re starting to see the sprouts showing through.”
With contributions from Owen Churchill.
(Header image: Dorling Kindersley/VCG)