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Lenient lessons

China Diary || In Xi Jinping’s China, where the concept of democracy is mocked at, a group of college students went far beyond mimicry last month and, yet, emerged unscathed

Neha Sahay Published 10.11.23, 06:37 AM
Xi Jinping.

Xi Jinping. File Photo.

Imagine a video showing students mimicking a minister’s visit to their college going viral. What fate would await them in the ‘world’s largest democracy’?

In Xi Jinping’s China, where the concept of democracy is mocked at, a group of college students went far beyond mimicry last month and, yet, emerged unscathed. These were not sophisticated Beijing or Shanghai students, but those enrolled in a vocational college in the underdeveloped province of Yunnan in South West China.


What the students did was unimaginable. Pretending to be highly-placed officials, they enacted a full-fledged ‘inspection’ visit to their college, fooling everyone, including the principal. The video that went viral shows them dressed in the black suits typical of Chinese officials, striding around the campus looking officious. The student playing the top official is dressed in a blue Mao suit. Making sure to include in their performance the usual stony-faced hangers-on taking notes, they even had a scene of the ‘top official’ shaking hands with a grateful student just before he stepped into his car. This ‘official’ can be seen in various poses that characterise inspection visits: pointing here and there, looking into the horizon, waving his arm as he makes a point and so on.

Reportedly, as soon as the ‘officials’ landed, the staff and students frantically began searching on their phones for information: who were these VIPs who had suddenly turned up? However, not wanting to leave anything to chance, they acted properly deferential. Perhaps because they too had been fooled, the authorities let the students off lightly, saying that they would be given “proper guidance”. Plot thickens

This episode throws up uncomfortable questions about the gap between the expectations the communist party has of students — during his visit to Tsinghua University in 2021, President Xi had exhorted them to be “Red and professional” — and the reality. But another enactment that also took place last month raises far more disturbing questions. This one was by senior middle-school students aged between 15 and 18 years in Zaozhuang, an industrial hub and tourist destination between Beijing and Shanghai. Violent and vicious, this was an enactment of the July 2022 assassination of the former Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, by a gunman.

That this performance took place during a sports event at the school makes one wonder whether the authorities already knew about it. After the mock shooting, the students unfurled a banner that read: “Two gunshots chilled the bones and polluted water discharged into the sea will leave future troubles.” The latter part of the banner referred to Japan’s release of treated contaminated water from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster site into the Pacific Ocean since August 24. The decision generated widespread panic and was condemned by the Chinese government and media.

Abe was among the most unpopular foreign leaders in China owing to his denial of war crimes against China and his visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to Japanese soldiers, including war criminals. Unlike other countries like India, China did not fly its flag at half-mast when he was assassinated. These students were, in a way, just following the official line. Nevertheless, it was shocking that no action was taken against them either. An education official said it was necessary to be “tolerant of their mistakes as they are still young.”

Do the responses to these two enactments indicate a more liberal approach towards students’ freedom? Not at all. Like everyone else, universities were also instructed to ensure that Li Keqiang, the former premier who died last month, was not eulogised. However, students paid their homage anyway, and the internet was full of paeans to him.

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