Ex-Xinhua reporter sets out on his own with satirical WeChat account

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/22 5:03:04

Wang Xiaolei Photo: CFP

Wang Xiaolei used to have two identities.

He was a reporter at the Chongqing bureau of the Xinhua News Agency, China's biggest State-owned news agency. He'd written about the benefits of China's urbanization, anti-corruption campaigns and China's 13th five-year plan. Just like the majority of articles churned out by China's State media, his stories are rigid, sometimes lackluster, but always strictly - and safely - in line with the government's ideology. If you happened to come across his stories in the newspaper, you probably wouldn't have bothered to check the byline and find out who wrote it.

You wouldn't associate the man with Liushen Leilei, an incisive political critic on social media app WeChat who has in three years attracted over 500,000 followers. His loyal readers expect one article (sometimes two) delivered to their smartphones daily from his public account, usually a satirical, tactfully written commentary about everything in the news from the execution of senior North Korean politician Jang Sung-taek to China's vaccination safety scandal. Liushen Leilei is bold, sharp-witted and humorous, and readers love that personality.

Wang had these two identities until he resigned last October from his Xinhua job, and started to focus entirely on being Liushen Leilei - working on his self-media account. This made him one of a growing number of journalists who have quit mainstream media outlets in recent years to focus entirely on their own brands, attracting millions in fans and revenue.

Under disguise

Wang opened his public account at the end of 2013 when he was trying to kill time during a day of compulsory journalism training required by Xinhua. He carefully hid his real identity on his account, and enjoyed this side project. "The best thing about doing self-media is that I don't need to walk the tightrope. If I think my article is OK, I'll publish it. And I take responsibility myself," he told ifeng.com.

But doing self-media doesn't mean there is no control at all.

After eight years at Xinhua, Wang said that he knows where the line is. "I know how far one should go. Some people aren't aware of the line, and they push too hard and cross it," he said in an interview with ifeng.com.

In his articles, Liushen Leilei never directly says what news events he is commenting on. Instead, he alludes to them, using the characters and stories from the martial arts novels of Louis Cha, more commonly known by his pen name Jin Yong. Cha's fictional world is part fantasy and part traditional Chinese culture and the characters in these novels are Wang's source of inspiration - and his disguise.

For example, as China has been engulfed by nationalistic sentiments lately, with some going as far as protesting outside branches of KFC, Wang wrote an article entitled "Why Wei Xiaobao won't join the Boxer Uprising." Wei Xiaobao is the cunning protagonist from Cha's novel The Deer and the Cauldron, and the Boxer Uprising was a violent anti-foreigner uprising that took place in China at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It doesn't take much for readers to realize that Liushen is using his article to criticize the extreme nationalists - and readers enjoy guessing what he's hinting at.

"Many people think it's sensitive to criticize the government, but not really. There are things you can criticize about the government, and things you can't. That line is very subtle, and it changes constantly," he said.

Though Wang takes pride in his ability to walk the politically acceptable line, he makes blunders. On May 22, an article he published, which subtly criticizes China's publicity policy, was deleted, and his account was suspended for one month. Wang took it as a lesson learned, saying "I deserve it" after the suspension was over, but promised he won't change his style because of the suspension.

Quitting Xinhua

Wang's one-month suspension didn't hurt his popularity. Now, almost every article on his account is read at least 100,000 times. This makes him an advertisers' favorite. Readers can also tip him through WeChat's tipping function. The revenue of what was meant to be a side project soon grew from a small portion of his salary to five times his salary, until the earnings from a single article exceeded his annual income. Last October, he finally quit Xinhua.

Many people think Liushen's resignation is another story of a liberal journalist escaping the State system. But Liushen says this has never been the story. On many occasions, he has expressed his gratitude to Xinhua. "My old employer treated me well. I'm emotionally attached to it," he said. He also thanked Xinhua's tolerance of his personal account - his superiors had known about it all the time, but didn't intrude.

Although Liushen's WeChat articles sometimes make him sound like a rebel, he says he isn't. Wang has been a Communist Party of China member for 12 years. In an interview he said, "[China's] political system is good. We have National People's Congress, and we have the Constitution. As long as they are implemented, it's good."

Liushen has never hidden the fact he is a Party member. He stresses it. "Many people can't recite the socialist core values, but I can," he said in an interview, and recited the 12 terms immediately. It's difficult to tell if he is intentionally showing it off, or if it's just part of his playful nature.

He described his first months after quitting as "scary." "I no longer have an organization [to cling to]," he told Beijing Evening News. As he left the system, money men started to approach him. About seven investors reached out to him, wanting to "discuss cooperation," but Wang turned them all down because he doesn't know "what to cooperate on."

Global Times
Newspaper headline: Serious jokes

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