It was the eye roll that resonated with millions – and broke the internet in China.
On the sidelines of the country’s annual parliament session, a Chinese journalist on Tuesday morning showed her contempt for a fellow reporter’s softball question with such force that videos of her facial expression went viral.
Captured live on state television, Liang Xiangyi, a correspondent for the Shanghai-based Yicai financial news network, looked up and down at the journalist next to her, as the latter began questioning a government official on the subject of state asset supervision.
Liang appeared so turned off by what she was hearing that she rolled her eyes while turning her head away from the other reporter, whose fawning question lasted a whopping 44 seconds – an eternity in live broadcast.
Within minutes, numerous clips, GIFs and recreations of the eye roll began to spread like wildfire across the Chinese internet, prompting censors to suppress its spread and banning Liang’s name from online search results.
It was a rare moment of spontaneity at the highly choreographed two-week gathering of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s largely ceremonial parliament.
Its nearly 3,000 delegates on Sunday almost unanimously endorsed a controversial constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi Jinping to rule the country indefinitely.
As Xi tightens his grip over the country, the domestic media coverage of the NPC has become more deliberately stale – with questions at press events carefully screened and often going to outlets trusted by the authorities.
The journalist asking the question Tuesday introduced herself as Zhang Huijun with a US news outlet, American Multimedia Television – though she kept referring to China as “our country” in her remarks.
On its website, the California-based station boasts close ties with China’s state broadcaster CCTV, Zhang’s former employer.
Chinese netizens across the country hailed Liang’s honesty, with many saying the moment represented a collective national eye roll over the scripted news coverage of the rubber-stamp NPC.
As the story spread, Liang’s employer, Yicai, posted a video of her at last weekend’s commerce ministry press conference, ostensibly to contrast her more brief and substantive question to that of Zhang’s.
By late Tuesday afternoon, however, that video had been deleted – with Liang’s name becoming one of the most censored terms on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter – as unconfirmed reports emerged of authorities moving to formally revoke her official press credentials.
Quick-thinking Chinese entrepreneurs, though, went ahead with their attempts to cash in on the now-immortalized moment, with smartphone cases featuring Liang and Zhang already on sale on e-commerce sites.
As the NPC session stretched into its tenth day Wednesday, a widely shared online post seems to have summed up the public sentiment on the episode: “A huge production with thousands of actors had failed to top the box office for a week, until two extras on set suddenly captured everyone’s imagination.”
“There are no small actors, only small parts,” it said.