“If China was invaded by America, you would lead the way!” So goes the insult that came about in Chinese internet debates over US-South Korea naval exercises in the YellowSea in 2010. It was directed at any Chinese who defended the annual exercises, which took place in an especially tense environment that year. In response to the Cheonan incident, the US sent the aircraft carrier USS George Washington into international waters in the Yellow Sea to join the drills. For Beijing, it was too close for comfort and many in China viewed it as a veiled belligerent signal directed at them. US officials maintained it was directed at North Korea as a signal of South Korea-US resolve.
America did not end up invading China, but the the title dailudang, or “Lead the Way Party,” stuck to the sector of Chinese internet commentators and intellectuals deemed insufficiently indignant at the close proximity of the US military to the Chinese mainland. It has since come to mean anyone seen as too pro-American or pro-West in general. The name is similar to and somewhat interchangeable with the slightly older meifendang, or “Penny Party” – a reference to American currency and a play on the infamous “50 Cent Party.”
In a country with only one political party but a vast and active online civil society of widely differing views, the need for intellectual diversity finds an outlet in the creation of satirical, digital quasi-political “parties.” There is no formal organization or online gathering place for the Penny Party or the Lead the Way Party; they are simply humorous euphemisms for a liberal “traitor” or “sellout.”
If the Lead the Way Party was an actual political party, Yang Rongjia might be one of its Congressmen – the Representative from Hebei, if you will. Doctor Yang, 39, is an associate physics professor at Hebei University in Baoding, about an hour and a half southwest of Beijing by train. He denies that he is a member of the Penny Party or Lead the Way Party, while at the same time acknowledging that he is – it is a de facto rather than de jure membership. This is a matter of course. No one calls oneself a member of the Penny Party or the Lead the Way Party, the title is given to you by your opponents.
“I believe the separation of government powers into three branches and democratic values are universal. They are the highest development of the political civilization of mankind, and they are adaptable to every country,” Yang told me when I visited him in his campus office in Baoding. “I think China will realize democracy one day. But I believe in peaceful reform, because violent revolutions are not the right way for China. That would be too damaging to the country. China cannot suffer a disaster like that. Countries all over the world are now in a period of peaceful competition and turmoil would only make China fall far behind.”
In a 2003 Southern Weekend piece, Lin Chufang and Zhao Ling wrote “the real turning point in the emergence of the Internet as a platform for the expression of public opinion in China was May 9, 1999, when the People’s Daily Online opened a forum in which netizens could rally opposition against the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces. This was the first current-affairs news forum opened by a website of a traditional media outlet.” It’s in that very forum where Yang says he is most active. “I post many things on this blog,” he said as he turned to his computer and opened his most recent post, “look at this, it’s about the Constitution (and how the Communist Party doesn’t follow it), but it hasn’t been deleted.” Yang also keeps an active Sina Weibo account and says “the People’s Daily posters are mainly the 50 Cent Party because it’s state-run. But Sina Weibo is privately run, so there is greater freedom of speech there.”
Professor Yang has stopped getting into flame wars with the 50 Cent Party and just posts his articles with minimal commenting. “Some of them believe in socialism and are anti-Western, but most don’t have beliefs. They are unenlightened. They’re just tools for the government.” He says he has only been threatened once, when someone said they would report an article he posted to the police. “But what I published was true, so it was useless for them to do that,” he said.
Others, like lawyer and scholar Xu Zhiyong, have been arrested, and it can be hard to tell where the line is. The general rule, Yang explained, is if you don’t organize people into concrete action, or report on a demonstration that took place, you probably won’t face any trouble. The Democracy Party of China did take concrete action by attempting to formally register the Party, and they were swiftly imprisoned and later exiled. Rules introduced last year state that any rumor or piece of false information that is shared over 500 times on social media will result in punishment for the original poster. “I won’t go to the street to demonstrate to criticize someone,” Yang says. “I won’t do that.” Yang reckons the turning point for the rules becoming stricter was after the trial of Bo Xilai in 2012.
Writing the things online that Yang does, he has become something of a bad boy on campus. He describes his colleagues’ attitude as “mingzhe baoshen,” an expression meaning to play it safe, to shirk principle to protect one’s personal interests and to stay out of trouble. He doesn’t proselytize or evangelize, “[my colleagues] don’t say they support the government or democratic reform. We don’t talk about it. I just live my life, and I want to keep my job.”
The general public’s view is similar, according to Yang. People are generally respectful of other peoples’ right to express ideas critical of the government, but public opinion becomes wrathful if you are found to be spreading rumors or false information – which suggests the public is well capable of regulating speech by itself. “In order to promote the concepts of democracy, freedom and equality, you must first have a sincere heart,” said Yang. “You must really believe in these values and practice them in real life for people to listen to you.”
What turned Professor Yang into such a traitor willing to lead the way in an invasion of China? “I’m from a small village,” he explained in the heavy accent of his native Hunan Province. “I’m from the bottom of society. I’ve suffered many setbacks. I know the suffering that the farmers who come from the bottom of society experience and the unfairness of society. Based on what I’ve learned and experienced, I realized that Western values, such as human rights and democracy, are based on respect for man, the individual and people’s basic rights.” Paradoxically, you can catch a faint Marxist echo in Yang’s estimation of democracy’s historical destiny. But some of his reading material might land him in a different camp: “I often read the public speeches of American presidents, especially George W. Bush.”
The labels “Penny Party,” “Lead the Way Party” and particularly “50 Cent Party” have become so abused in Chinese comment boards and discussion forums that they have all but lost their effectiveness. The far Left and Right use them to simply shout each other down. Professor Hu Yong calls this “Godwin’s Law with Chinese Characteristics.” In the Chinese version, associating your opponents with the Red Guards is to reach the end of the argument; to summon the ultimate embodiment of political insanity in China, as the Nazis have come to symbolize in the West. To be called a member of the Penny Party or Lead the Way Party signals that the argument is nearly done, you are well on your way down the spectrum to “American running dog,” or “Red Guard.”
“Most Chinese don’t care about the left-wing or right-wing,” said professor Yang. “They just care about themselves and getting on with their own lives.” So, what about the independents or those with opinions on both sides of the spectrum? How are they labeled?
Tian, 24, a credit union consultant who asked to use only his surname, used to carry the banner of the Penny Party proudly and openly. If Yang Rongjia is a Congressman, Tian was a member of the Party’s grass roots coalition. But now he considers himself a ziganwu – a “50 Center who brings his own food.” The ziganwu are the cynical and ambivalent center-Left. “I’d say I’m neither in the Penny Party or 50 Cent Party, but I deviate towards the latter now,” Tian told me.
These reluctant 50 Centers are said to “bring their own food” because unlike the real 50 Cent Party, they are not paid in any way for their nationalist online comments. That makes them real dupes in the eyes of the Penny Party. “Before, I used to think things like, you know, democracy and freedom and those kinds of things were so cool,” Tian explained. “But later I started to think that people who advocated these things were too unreasonable. I think they only have the ability to tear down, they don’t have any concrete blueprints to put into effect for the future. It’s more constructive to be a rational 50 Center. But of course, I’m also not in the 50 Cent Party.”
If the Penny Party and Lead the Way Party have a founding document, a constitution, it’s Charter 08 – a document calling for complete structural reform of China’s government and one with many similarities to the American Constitution. It’s most famous drafter and signer, Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, remains imprisoned for putting his John Hancock on it. It’s a source of disillusionment for Tian, “(The Charter) is too out of touch with current reality, it’s not rooted in anything that can be implemented. In fact, it seems like it’s just cooked up to purposefully enrage those in power. It seems awe inspiring because it righteously upholds justice, but actually it’s unacceptable. And it has some ulterior motives. It wants to make those in power look foolish. They can only be engaged in these little movements, putting it into effect is too unfeasible. After all, in reality anyone of any ability is ultimately under control of the Communist Party.”
The government has shown some support for the ziganwu. Perhaps in an effort to say, “See, we don’t actually need to pay people to write this stuff!” the Communist Party-run newspaper Guangming Daily published a brief nod to them titled “The Ziganwu: Staunch Practitioners of Core Socialist Values.” In the article, Harbin Normal University history professor Zhao Shibing writes “see the ziganwu, they are law-abiding and patriotically dedicated; they hope for the motherland’s wealth and prosperity, social justice and integrity. They promote freedom and democracy, the unity of knowledge and civilized debate. They consciously observe and practice the socialist core values; their behavior is undoubtedly full of positive energy.” He notes that internet debate in China is getting increasingly “lively,” and concludes, “For the Chinese internet space to brighten and liven up, there needs to be more ziganwu standing up to guide people to conscientiously be builders of good morality; to be promoters of social civilization and the progress that’s been made.”
A common lament heard from young Chinese tuned in to politics is a resigned feeling of powerlessness, or wuligan. Some are taken with Western idealism, but when they discover how messy and imperfect it can be, they get discouraged and nationalism is often what’s waiting in the wings with wide open arms and a warm, cozy flag to wrap up in. So, it would probably be better if establishment figures didn’t try to co-opt the ziganwu phenomenon – if there’s one way to kill it for young people it is to dress it in stuffy official language like Professor Zhao does.
Tian says he has given up on political debates online, “I’m mostly an observer now, whatever I wouldn’t say, I won’t write. The majority of people online today don’t listen to what other people say, whenever some event happens they just use their ideology to interpret it and explain it. It’s insane, and I don’t want to get stuck in those confines. Now I just want to focus on my own affairs, I can’t control or influence anyone else.” However, he does acknowledge that conversations are becoming more nuanced and mature.
Our understanding of China’s ideological spectrum is also becoming more nuanced. A recent paper published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Political Science Department attempted to map that spectrum. One of the findings of the paper is that ideology seems to be unidimensional – that the Left and Right are pretty clear-cut and consistent. (For quick reference, a Chinese liberal on the Chinese right would line up more with an American conservative or libertarian on the American right. A Chinese conservative on the Chinese left would align more with progressives on the American left – with caveats of course.) The Lead the Way Party is an approximate catch-all for the liberal right. However, the ziganwu are not so easily placed. They are that kind of person one often comes across in China’s big cities who is generally happy with China’s development and liberalization, and enjoys the personal liberty that brings. But what makes them center-left conservative is their strong nationalist reactions on questions of China’s territorial sovereignty or interpretations of history. For example, said person may love getting around their city with Uber, and they might also support forcefully incorporating Taiwan into the People’s Republic.
Although the name is new, the idea of the Lead the Way Party has firm roots in the past, and the insult, used properly, can cut deeper than is readily apparent. In 1900, in response to the Boxer Rebellion, an alliance of eight nations invaded China to protect their interests and citizens in the recently opened nation’s capital. The Boxers were defeated, Beijing was occupied and looted by several of the foreign armies, and the Qing government was forced to pay a huge indemnity. This was a key chapter in the “Century of Humiliation” narrative which still looms large in the psyche of the Chinese intelligentsia and officialdom.
Part of the “humiliation” is the stories of the early Lead the Way Party from those days. Wang Kangnian, a Chinese journalism pioneer of the late Qing/early republican era, wrote in the reform-minded journal Current Affairs,
“I am told that this year, the Allied Forces have already entered China. That here are remaining evil elements of Boxer bandits concealed in the blue mountain mists, many are residing in Yanguang Temple, and a few are in Lingguang Temple. These Boxer bandits have no means of sustaining themselves, so they went into a nearby village and took a man named Han, and demanded a large sum from him. Han begged them to lower the price. They refused, and finally killed him. Han’s wife devised to sue the Boxer bandits through the local government, but knew she could not depend on them. Someone said it would be better for her to go directly into the city and petition the foreigners with her case. So she did, and she brought the troops to the temple, unbeknownst to the bandits who were resting easy and relaxed. At the sound of a gunshot, the bandits started in surprise. In a rush of panic they went to defend themselves, and they were all killed.”
There are accounts of Chinese Christians who were regularly attacked by the Boxers and who looked to the foreign forces for defense. Some dissatisfied and poorly paid Chinese servicemen were even hired by the Allies to help transport supplies from Tianjin to Beijing for the occupation. Russian war correspondent Dmitri Yanchevetsky of New Frontier was embedded with the Allied Forces and also wrote of ordinary Chinese who helped make the invasion successful,
“In a hamlet along the way some farmers told us that the east gate was closed, a day earlier Chinese government troops had fled Tongzhou and stationed in the south of Beijing in a place called the southern floodgate. The capital only had Manchurian soldiers and Dong Fuxiang’s troops. Other villagers told us the capital was completely emptied of Chinese soldiers. The Chinese villagers, who were engaged in peaceful labor, grumbled and complained about the encounters with their own country’s soldiers who came to plunder and pillage. They gave us water to drink; they were utterly respectful and submissive toward us…A reconnaissance team that was coming back after gathering this intelligence encountered an extraordinarily friendly villager on the way back. They treated us to hot water, and even wanted us to give them some Russian flags.”
(Speaking of Russian flags, the Lead the Way Party has spread beyond China’s borders and found its way to Crimea. A March 2014 story ran in QQ News with the headline “Russian Army Enters Crimea, Ukraine – Guy Holds Up Russian Flag As The Lead The Way Party.” Afghan and Iraqi advisers to US forces have also been given the name. And on the dark humor side there’s this short comic called “The Lead the Way Party” which depicts some overjoyed Chinese who can’t wait to help a group of invading US soldiers, only to get blown away because they “can’t English.”)
These and other betrayals did not go unnoticed by the Qing government. The clear military and technological supremacy of the Allies in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion and the need to shore up public opinion in the face of the government’s failures forced a round of reforms in Beijing. Not least of which was education reform. There was a rising intellectual class, among which was a growing dissatisfaction with the Manchu Qing rulers. People like Sun Yatsen were part of that generation, and as they watched these events they felt a desire to further incorporate Western approaches into Chinese institutions. (Sun of course went on to help lead the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and establish a republic. Would he be labeled as the Lead the Way Party today?)
But even prominent reformers were not in favor of total adoption. Zhang Zhidong, an establishment reformer who wanted to strike a balance between traditional Chinese and Western education, and who was tasked with creating new scholastic regulations in 1902, wrote “as for the aim of establishing schools, do not ask what kind of schools. Without exception we will use ‘filial piety as the root, and study of China’s classics and history as the foundation’ so that all students’ intentions will remain unadulterated. Then, we may reward their knowledge and intellect with Western learning.”
Echoes of this approach can be heard right up through the present. These days the Chinese government is probably not worried about an armed invasion, but they do seem worried about an ideological invasion of sorts. Likewise, China’s nationalist netizens don’t berate the Lead the Way Party so much for planning any actual invasion, but for not upholding socialist values, or Chinese values, and for trying to remake China in the image of the West through its institutions and mindset – for letting Western values invade the Chinese mind.
I asked professor Yang if there was any common ground between the nationalists and the Lead the Way Party. He said there is indeed one thing all Chinese agree on: The Diaoyu Islands belong to China.
Painting at the top: “I’ll Try Sir!” by H. Charles McBarron