[Viewpoint] Stay hungry, stay foolish

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[Viewpoint] Stay hungry, stay foolish

On Dec. 19, not long after news of Kim Jong-il’s death went public, the Chinese Communist Party issued a note of condolence reminding the North Korean people that he was “a close friend of the Chinese people.”

It’s an innocuous phrase, the sort of thing that the party says about its allies all the time. But unlike past expressions of sympathy and friendship, this one has found little to no support among China’s microblogging masses. As of Wednesday, they have tweeted eight million comments related to the “dear leader” on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform, and nearly all of them are scathingly negative. Indeed, rather than join party leaders in literally bowing down to Kim Jong-il, China’s microbloggers seem far more intent on mocking him and his impoverished country.

Feng Hongping, an editor for Vista Magazine - a glossy, state-owned general interest publication - took early offense to the Party’s expression of friendship with Kim Jong-il. On Tuesday, in a Weibo post that has been forwarded (or retweeted) nearly 400 times, he wrote: “I do hereby declare that, as a member of the Chinese people, I have never authorized any organization to send a message of condolence regarding Kim Jong-il’s death on my behalf. Kim Jong-il was not my close friend. Please reconsider using phrases like ‘close friends of the Chinese people’ in such documents in the future. Thank you!”

On Tuesday, Weibo microbloggers began to generate what some on the service quickly labeled China’s joke of the year. They took the line from Steve Jobs’s now-famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address - “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” - and applied it to North Korea: “Kim Jong-il’s last words to the Korean people: ‘Stay hungry. Stay foolish.’?”

By late afternoon on Wednesday, the joke had gone viral. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of arguably better versions of it. For example: “The entire Korean people have achieved the wishes of the famous Steve Jobs: Stay hungry. Stay foolish!” Or, more cutting: “Jobs’s greatest legacy is Kim and his son and a country where 24 million people do stay hungry, do stay foolish.”

This is in stark contrast to the somber exhibitions of Confucian respect that China’s leaders have displayed to North Korean diplomats in Beijing. On Wednesday, President Hu Jintao, accompanied by other Politburo members, bowed three times before a portrait of Kim. Hu also expressed his - and the Chinese people’s - deep grief. The next morning, Premier Wen Jiabao and four additional members of China’s Politburo also stopped by the North Korean Embassy and bowed in respect to the deceased “dear leader.”

Some Chinese Communist Party officials with Weibo accounts are expressing wonder at the microbloggers’ lack of pity for Kim and his people. One of them is Chi Susheng, a lawyer and member of China’s National People’s Congress. She tweeted: “From the time I heard about the death of Kim Jong-il until now, I randomly asked dozens of people around me about how they felt. All of them are very happy. Honestly speaking, no one grieved, even a little .?.?. Why don’t we share a drop of pity on a person who died because of heart attack?”

The Central Government called Kim Jong-il an old friend while the people were highly gratified to see his death, which just goes to show the degree of their differences. That distance surely makes party officials uncomfortable. The Global Times, known for its hyper-nationalist bent and affiliation with the party mouthpiece newspaper, People’s Daily, expressed that discomfort in terms that could make many microbloggers very uncomfortable: “Some domestic audiences are making fun of North Koreans who grieve for Kim Jong-il on the Internet. It reflects the fact that Chinese society is not that tolerant.”

Tolerance, in this twisted perspective, means showing “understanding and tolerance” toward the North Korean regime. That regime will now be led by Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il, whom Chinese opinion writers and microbloggers are already lampooning. This week, Sun Xingjie, a columnist at China Newsweek, penned a lengthy editorial outlining the dangers Kim Jong-un will face, from pressures to reform to power-hungry senior generals. But those pale in comparison to the challenge posed by technology: “Once the youngsters of the DPRK start to know the world through the Internet and express themselves, the dangers to Kim Jong-un will really start.”

*The writer is the Shanghai correspondent for the Bloomberg World View blog.

By Adam Minter
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