New Thing: Chinese Web Users Love Petitioning the White House

And they have a lot to say
WhiteHouse by HarshLight_flickr.jpgHarshlight/Flickr

The White House surely has a full plate already. But it can add one more item to its long to-do list: respond to Chinese petitioners.

Starting on May 3, the White House's petition website has become a favored landing spot for Chinese Web users, and the hashtag #occupytheWhiteHouse, and a variety of related memes, has recently appeared on Chinese social media platforms. The origin of this chatter provides a case study in censorship, Chinese netizen humor, American soft power, and the unintended consequences of a (sometimes) borderless Internet.

It began on a tragic note. In the wake of a fatal student poisoning at China's Fudan University, Chinese Web users demanded that another long-cold case of attempted murder on a famous Chinese college campus, ostensibly closed because of the suspect's family connections, be re-opened. On May 3, censors reacted by banning the victim's name, "Zhu Ling," from China's social Web. So Chinese netizens went elsewhere. Over 132,000 users logged on to the White House petition site to demand that the suspect, who now lives in the U.S., be investigated and deported back to China. (The White House pledges to respond to all petitions collecting more than 100,000 signatures.)

It was a discovery born of (digital) necessity. Evidently delighted by the realization that they could directly petition the President of the United States from the comfort of an Internet cafe in Chengdu, Chinese netizens have followed suit with several more petitions on the same site. At last count, four of the most recent six White House petitions were apparently penned by Chinese Web users. Some are serious; one calls for the U.S. to condemn a planned oil refinery in the city of Kunming. Some are trivial; one asks that the official flavor of a favorite tofu snack be of the sweet, not salty, variety. On Chinese social media, users have photoshopped images of President Obama as Bao Zheng, a Song Dynasty official that has been the subject of numerous television dramas. One user even helpfully uploaded a four-page PDF explaining exactly how to create a petition on the White House page.

None of the more recent petitions has approached the threshold requiring a government response, and Chinese Web users are likely aware of the limits to the White House's power. But these spontaneous online movements are part of a pattern, where a small but enthusiastic group of Chinese Web users occasionally erupt in digital psuedo-democracy and pseudo-diplomacy.

In early February of 2012, when China's so-called Great Firewall temporarily lifted its block on Google Plus, Chinese Web users took advantage of the brief reprieve to flood President Obama's re-election page with comments. More recently, in mid-March of this year, a well-known provocateur tweeted the results of an imaginary election on Sina Weibo, a micro-blogging service. Hundreds of users replied in surprisingly serious tones, with one estimating that true elections would not be held until 2033, another saying it would be "a thousand years" hence. That provocateur's tweet, and the comments to it, were deleted in less than 24 hours.

David Wertime is the co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that focuses on China and Chinese sentiment. He is an Atlantic correspondent, Associate Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society.

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