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.
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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.