Weibo and the Decay of China’s Public Sphere
When Yang Liping uploaded a video of herself eating hot pot alone earlier this month, the famed 61-year-old dancer probably wasn’t expecting to find herself at the center of an online debate over whether women without children are “failures.”
But not long after Yang, who is twice-divorced and childless, posted the dinner clip, one of her female followers, who later claimed to be a fan, unloaded on her: “A woman’s largest failure is not having children,” read her post, which quickly racked up over 10,000 upvotes and ended up on microblogging platform Weibo’s trending topics page. “It doesn’t matter how beautiful or successful you are: You will never know the joy of being surrounded by your children and grandchildren in your 90s.”
Yang did not immediately respond, but actresses, journalists, and scholars rushed to her defense. And just like that, one of China’s most persistent flame wars was back on.
Not that it was ever really off. Less than a month prior, Jiang Yilei, the popular vlogger better known as “Papi Jiang,” was caught in a similar “controversy,” not for not having kids, but for having a son — and what’s worse, giving her son the wrong name. This Mother’s Day, Jiang posted a photo of the newborn and herself on her Weibo account, only to be met with hostility for giving the boy her husband’s surname rather than her own. Some Weibo users bemoaned an independent and successful woman choosing to become a “baby-making machine,” while others dismissed her as a “married donkey.”
Both the Jiang and Yang incidents fit into a familiar pattern in contemporary China, in which celebrities’ private lives and choices often become proxy battlegrounds in the fight over hot-button issues — especially those related to women.
Chinese liberals’ first instinct may be to defend the stars by pointing out it is none of anyone’s business how other people — no matter how famous — live or what they name their children. But the truth is, our personal lives have never been entirely in our own hands. They are grounded in relationships with family, kinship, and community. And in modern society, many otherwise private problems can influence the public interest, especially when they involve public figures.
Some of these issues are serious and worthy of debate: Domestic violence, the unequal division of housework, and maternity leave vex even scholars, to say nothing of the general public. The problem is the majority of debates focus on meaningless, alarmist, or simply insane speech. Does giving your son his father’s surname turn an independent woman into a pack animal? Does a woman’s decision not to have children have any bearing on her value as a person?
“No” and “no,” would seem to be obvious answers to some. Yet we keep having the same arguments. One plausible reason is that these subjects don’t require much in the way of professional knowledge, skills, or cognitive ability to discuss. Unlike issues such as how to rescue women from domestic violence, everyone has their own opinions about childbirth and child rearing. And if you come off as dense in the replies, well, so does everyone else.
As a university lecturer, I recognize the allure of such topics from my student’s persuasive writing assignments. Many of them prefer to pick undebatable questions that only have one valid, acceptable answer — “whether or not” questions rather than “why” or “how” questions. For instance, one group wrote in favor of paying more attention to the feminine hygiene needs of frontline female doctors and nurses.
This is definitely an issue worth discussing. But their framing — “Should we pay attention to female medical workers’ feminine hygiene needs?” — practically answers itself. “Yes.” It’s hard to imagine anyone interested in the public good reasonably accepting an argument that there is no need to show concern for female workers.
A more meaningful way to address the issue would be to ask: “How can we relieve shortages of sanitary products?” But this question requires the respondent to be informed and knowledgeable about the topic. They need to know how this problem was dealt with before, what the female doctors and nurses need specifically, and how to prioritize them.
Not everyone is qualified to answer every question, but everyone can enjoy the catharsis of a good rant or the schadenfreude of seeing someone make a fool of themselves. To be fair, even shallow debates have value: They reflect a reality so divided, we cannot even achieve consensus on basic human values. What we can’t allow, however, is for this need for argument to be manipulated by politicians, businesses, or interest groups.
There’s few better at this than U.S. President Donald Trump, who often uses execrable rhetorical tricks to distract people from deeper problems. Earlier this month, in response to nationwide protests set off by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, he tweeted a demand that New York call up its National Guard to put down the “lowlifes and losers.” His exact motive might be obscure, but the trick worked: Thousands stopped talking about how to fix the systemic racism plaguing American policing and started debating whether the president was fit for office.
In Papi Jiang’s case, I might have expected to see a discussion on how a female celebrity kept her husband involved in child care. Instead, the post was derailed both from her original intention — sharing her happiness with her fans — and from what many feminists would consider the actual issue at stake.
We live in a complex world. As tempting as it is sometimes to take a break for meaningless fights over trivial nonsense, giving in is only going to make things worse. Unfortunately, that might be the sad future reality has in store for us.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: From sorbetto/Getty Creative, re-edit by Sixth Tone)