As people across China this weekend mourned Yuan Longping, a symbol of China’s scientific prowess and national hero, even the slightest voice of discord was too much for the Chinese government.
Yuan, who cultivated the world’s first high-yield hybrid rice strain and saved millions from hunger, died of organ failure at the age of 90 on Saturday.
His death triggered an outpouring of grief across the nation. In Changsha, where he died, crowds lined the streets and cars honked as his hearse drove by on Saturday. On Sunday, tens of thousands of people lined up in the rain outside his funeral home, state media reported.
But as tributes flooded in on China’s social media platforms, it also emerged that at least three people had been detained for posting “insulting remarks” against Yuan, according to police notices and state media. Chinese social media site Weibo shut down 64 accounts that had posted content insulting Yuan.
While the offending comments were disrespectful, they weren’t widely circulated and carried little real risk of reputation damage.
But under President Xi Jinping, Chinese authorities have become increasingly intolerant of any voices that criticize national heroes – or question the narrative about them. And in the run-up to the ruling Communist Party’s centenary, on July 1, that’s only escalated.
Yuan devoted his life to developing rice strains that yield higher harvests after the Great Chinese Famine that killed tens of millions between 1959 and 1961. His variants helped alleviate famine in developing countries across Asia and Africa.
In 2019, Yuan was awarded the Medal of the Republic, China’s highest official honor, by Chinese President Xi Jinping. On social media this weekend, some questioned why he had never won a Nobel prize.
What’s lesser known to the public is that Yuan had tried to avoid politics. In an interview with Chinese magazine People in 2013, he said he’d never joined the Chinese Communist Party or its youth wing.
“Sometimes you say the wrong things because you don’t understand politics,” he said.
During China’s Cultural Revolution, Yuan learned that the hard way when previous comments he’d made opened him up to attacks.
When years earlier, he’d been told a crop strategy he had critiqued was, in fact, the instruction of Mao Zedong – the late Chairman whose campaign to modernize the Chinese economy caused the country’s worst famine of modern times, Yuan had responded: “Chairman Mao didn’t study crop science.”
Luckily, his research on rice published that year in a scientific journal drew the attention from senior Chinese officials in time to protect him from repercussions. “It saved my life,” he said.
He couldn’t have known then that decades later, up on his death, people would be detained for making “insulting remarks” about him.
The business of China: Jack Ma expelled from school
Jack Ma is reportedly stepping down as the president of an elite business school he founded, a sign that China is continuing to expand its efforts to keep tech companies in check.
Citing anonymous sources, the Financial Times reported Monday that Ma will no longer serve as the president of Hupan University, which he created in 2015 to cultivate a new generation of entrepreneurs.
Hupan and Jack Ma’s personal foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNN Business.
The report comes several months after Beijing began reining in the Chinese internet sector, with Ma at the center of those efforts. Regulators pulled a highly anticipated IPO for his company Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba, last year. Ant Group has since been forced to overhaul its operations, as other tech firms are also squeezed over concerns about monopolistic behavior and other consumer rights issues.
When Ma opened Hupan several years ago, he said he hoped to turn it into a “300-year enterprise.” The school is famously difficult to get into: Each applicant must have more than three years of entrepreneurial experience, with requirements for how large their company is and how much revenue it rakes in every year. Its admission rate is a lowly 2.16%, making it harder to get into than Harvard and Stanford.
Ma’s reported departure also comes as other major tech figures in China step back from high-profile posts. ByteDance CEO and founder Zhang Yiming announced last week that he would resign and transition to a new role at the company to “focus on long-term strategy.” He’s 38 years old. And in March, Colin Huang the 41-year-old founder of Pinduoduo, said he would step down as chairman to pursue other goals, including his childhood dream of becoming a scientist or researcher.
The coronavirus story Beijing wishes would die
Another week, another debate about the origins of the coronavirus. This time sparked by a new US intelligence report claiming several researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 and had to be hospitalized.
At present, it’s unclear what the researchers were sick with, or if the intelligence is even accurate, but the report’s claims have reopened a debate over whether the pandemic was caused by a lab leak – which will infuriate Beijing.
Investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO) largely rebuked the lab theory after visiting Wuhan and interviewing staff at the institute in question, but it has continued to be pushed by many US officials. Others have dismissed it entirely however, with a leading American virologist telling CNN the theory was like something out of a “thriller or a comic book.”
Scientists may roll their eyes to see the claim back in the news, but that will be nothing like the reaction from Beijing, which has vehemently denied the possibility of the virus having come from a lab. At the time of writing, Chinese officials have not commented on the latest report or replied to CNN’s request for comment.
China’s leaders have struggled to shift the narrative on the coronavirus from its beginnings in Wuhan to the country’s great success in containing it – even as the pandemic caused disaster across the world.
We will never know how much the virus could have been stopped if Wuhan officials had acted quicker. But the mere suggestion that the virus might have come from a government-sponsored lab.
That such a suggestion is coming directly from the US government, in this case, will likely further drive tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Quoted and noted
“Lithuania is a small country, whose population is less than a district of one of China’s first-tier cities.”
– The state-run Global Times hits out at Vilnius after Lithuania’s parliament described Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a “genocide” and moved to pull the Baltic country out of a 17+1 bloc made up of Eastern European countries and China.
Photo of the day
Marathon tragedy: Rescuers search a rural part of China’s northern Gansu province on Sunday, after an ultra-marathon ended in disaster when runners experienced freezing temperatures and hail stones, leaving 21 people dead, including several of the country’s top athletes.