How A 50 Cent Debate Lead To Blows
Ross Slutsky | Washington DC
An ongoing Internet argument that recently came to physical blows in China still has many around the world scratching their heads in confusion.
On one side of the fight: Zhou Yan, a crusading journalist with a fondness for dissidents and a little boat-rocking. On the other, Wu Danhong, a leading Chinese legal scholar and vocal defender of the regime. And starring in a bizarre cameo, Ai Weiwei, one of contemporary China’s most famous artists.
Let’s back up a bit.
The most recent battle lines appear to have been drawn over a controversial copper and molybdenum mine that Beijing wants to build. Wu, blogging under the pseudonym Wu Fatian came out strongly in support of the mine. Zhou opposes the mine, and the two began an exchange of opinions on the popular micro-blogging site Weibo.
Behind the mine debate, however, are long-simmering accusations about Wu’s affiliations with something called the “50 Cent party. As Foreign Policy‘s Joshua Keating relates, the 50 Cent Party “is a nickname for the undercover pro-government Internet commentors who are allegedly paid that much per comment.” Though he denies the charge, many have accused Wu of being a 50 Cent man.
This being a disagreement that has largely played out online, Zhou and Wu agreed to settle their differences in Chaoyang Park in an open forum. What ensued was less a stuffy debate between public intellectuals and, as ample video recordings show, more of a melee.
Surrounded by bloggers and mobile camera-phones, Wu stepped into view. Zhou hurried over to Wu and, the moment she was within range, delivered a broad slap across Wu’s face, leading Wu to attempt to respond in kind. Within seconds, Wu was on the ground, being kicked by a few of Zhou’s supporters.
For the next 10 or so minutes, both sides “settled” into a heated and emotional dispute over topics of professionalism, ethics, and whether law or morality should prevail. Needless to say, an unusual public event to play out on the streets of China.
If that wasn’t odd enough, some moments later (around 12:45 in the above video) Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei enters into the dispute, yelling and pulling on Wu’s ear. And all of this occurring while Ai awaited a verdict in his now-unsuccessful appeal of tax fraud charges brought by the Chinese government. Eventually, police arrived on the scene and the gathering dispersed.
While the dispute itself is notable, what is even more interesting is the fact that government officials allowed this to play out publicly in the first place.
Granted, it makes sense that the party would allow for a public discussion to occur, knowing that Wu would adamantly defend the party line. However, it’s obvious that something as simple as a “debate” between public figures can quickly escalate into unpredictable, if not violent confrontations – not a situation the regime in Beijing has shown much tolerance for.
It will be interesting to see whether or not Beijing allows such unregulated events to occur in the future or if they will demand the presence of state officials.