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Chinese 'tweeters' misunderstand PM's apocalypse message

Monica Tan
Published: December 12, 2012 - 7:48AM

Hours after Triple J posted a spoof video in which Prime Minister Julia Gillard "confirmed" the end of the world, the news hit the Chinese Internet, spreading like a red-headed wildfire. Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging tool boasting over 300 million users, saw the words "Australian Prime Minister" mentioned over 23,000 times, sending the words up into their list of top 10 most popular keywords. 

The majority of users forwarded a post titled "Australian Prime Minister states end of the world is approaching this month: this is real," and that fails to identify the video as parody. Even when a version of the video with Chinese subtitles began to circulate, the satire was lost on many of the commenters, who expressed surprise and disbelief a head of state would come out on camera with such statements as: "Whether the final blow comes from flesh eating zombies, demonic hell beasts or from the total triumph of K-pop, if you know one thing about me it is this: I will always fight for you to the very end."

The video of Prime Minister "Ji La De", as Gillard is called in Chinese, along with these reactions by Chinese web users says just as much about Chinese politics as it does Australian. The vast majority of Australians might react to such a video with mild amusement, but hardly consider it shocking stuff. In contrast, for Chinese audiences this kind of "larrikin" behaviour coming from the country's most powerful leader is literally too strange to be believed, with partial credit surely due to Gillard's deadpan delivery.

User sleepeat said: "This can't be possible, that a head of state is talking this way." While another called Sum Shudong wrote, "How many glasses or bottles has Sister Prime Minister drunk?" A few even accused Gillard of being crazy and irresponsible, with user Chen Yue Cyanni writing earnestly, "Why has the Prime Minister of Australia been convinced that all this end of the world business is true when this type of thing has no scientific basis? She's misleading her country." 

Many more commenters asked "is this video real?" – a question whose answer would seem glaringly obvious to Australians viewers. While others used it to jokingly share their own fears that the end is indeed nigh (such as user Pretty Star May who wrote, "oh no! But I haven't even gotten married yet!"). Chatter regarding the Mayan prophesy, apparently due to hit us on December 21, has been dominating the Chinese Internet space recently. Another viral story reports that citizens in the southern Chinese province of Sichuan have been stocking up on candles that led to a shortage, after rumours spread of the prediction including "three consecutive days of darkness".

In fairness, Chinese audiences have grown up with a modern political system that eschews personality driven politics. As I've discussed previously, in a one party system where the ruling government need not concern itself with seducing the country's voting population there's only risk, and little political gain, for politicians to reveal their true character and opinions. Which has turned all public appearances by top officials into tightly-scripted performances consisting of old men stuffed into black suits, parading on stages and shaking each other's hands.

However there are signs that incoming President Xi Jinping wants to change all of that. With the Party's image tarnished by tales of corrupt officials swimming in cash and mistresses, the incoming government has announced an end to lavish red-carpet treatment for officials and restricting their use of motorcades. A promise Xi himself seems to have made good on, with this image of the President on a modest minibus, smiling and waving reposted by web users over 76,000 times in two days. 

Perhaps this is an opportunity for Australia to export more than just iron ore and coal to China. After all if there's any politician to have recently shown the world how to break away from the conventional austere and pompous political appearances, it's Gillard. This is not the first, but the second time in a matter of months that our PM has gone viral with online audiences. In October a video of a blazing Gillard accusing Tony Abbot of misogyny ricocheted around the world, attracting the admiration of thousands of writers, bloggers and commenters.

Still I can't help but feel it's unlikely we'll see members of China's Communist Party attempt the satire of Gillard's doomsday video anytime soon. After all irony isn't the Party's strongest point, with last month the state-run People's Daily falling for a spoof award given to Kim Jong-un as the Onion's Sexiest Man Alive For 2012, and running a completely earnest 55-photo slideshow of the leader in response. 

Then again with only 9 days left on the planet, anything could happen.


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