It’s usually unwise to underestimate the human capacity for gullibility, an idea reinforced by The Onion’s most recent coup. The satirical newspaper is famous for headlines such as “Scientists Discover Delicious New Species” and “Drugs Win Drug War.”
Last week “America’s Finest News Source” announced North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un was its 2012 “Sexiest Man Alive”:
“With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true. … Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.”
Hong Kong media picked up the article, noting that it came from a “satirical news organization,” but then the story appeared in a couple of state-run, irony-free Chinese media outlets without the warning. It even ended up on the website of the Communist Party’s flagship paper, The People’s Daily, which added a 55-photo slideshow of Kim. “Exemplary reporting, comrades,” cooed The Onion editors in response.
Americans may think this is hilarious, but they do so for the wrong reasons. Many presume humor-challenged Chinese propagandists—their funny bones crushed by a totalitarian state—just fail to recognize mockery. Perhaps. Comments on the Chinese news sites suggest many readers believed the story.
But a China scholar quoted on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition observed, “In authoritarian systems, this is one way to poke fun at the regime from within,” said Anthony Saich. “I know that in the Cultural Revolution, some promoted outlandish claims about Mao’s powers as a way to undermine the adulation of him.”
The Chinese editors who re-posted this story knew they had cover, noted Weekend Edition:
“So, if a Chinese official were to ask a People’s Daily editor, ‘How could you run this American imperialist Onion joke about our cherished North Korean ally?’ the editor could reply, with a straight face, ‘You mean, comrade, that Kim Jong Un is not the sexiest man alive? Have you seen the photos?’”
We in America need to recognize that trapped behind the Great Firewall are more than a billion real people, and they are not all Communist Party automatons. They are individuals with senses of humor and dreams and families, and some have real misgivings about their government. Last week a few of them sent up a flare to let their countrymen, and us, know that not everyone in China buys the propaganda supporting the homicidal regime in North Korea.
Such resistance has happened before. David Aikman witnessed the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as Time magazine’s Asia bureau chief. Wandering around Beijing the next morning, he saw faxes of the front pages of Western newspapers, describing the killing, posted on poles. During a government crackdown, some courageous individuals were risking their lives to inform their own countrymen, to make sure the true story got back into China.
As Aikman walked, an elderly Chinese gentleman tottered up to him, grabbed his lapels, and begged him, “Please, please tell the story” of how the Chinese government was killing its own people.
Surely at least some of those Chinese editors recognized the Onion story as a spoof. We in the West saw that flare go up from behind the Great Firewall but we failed to recognize it as a flash of defiance. We should be laughing, not at those Chinese editors, but with them, because today in China there are people of courage who dared to tweak the noses of their party bosses with a joke that traveled the globe. Perhaps one day they’ll have the freedom to tell about it.