China Holds Social Media Users Over 'Insults' to Hybrid Rice Hero

Yuan Longping is lauded in state media as the 'father of hybrid rice,' with detractors rounded up by police.
2021-05-24
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China Holds Social Media Users Over 'Insults' to Hybrid Rice Hero Decorated Chinese agronomist Yuan Longping, who died May 22 at the age of 90 after developing a number of hybrid rice strains that revolutionized agriculture, in file photo,
Yan Longping

Authorities in China have detained at least five people across the country for posting derogatory comments online about Yuan Longping, who died at the weekend at the age of 90 after developing a number of hybrid rice strains that revolutionized agriculture.

Police in Beijing detained a netizen with the handle @nanwangshanxia on May 22, the day of Yuan's death from organ failure, after they posted comments judged disrespectful of Yuan on the social media platform WeChat, according to an official Weibo post.

The person is being held under criminal detention by the Chaoyang district police.

Police in Rizhao city in the eastern province of Shandong detained an 18-year-old man surnamed Jia on the same day, after he posted critical comments on Weibo following a spate of state media coverage lauding Yuan as the "father of hybrid rice."

Yuan, who died on May 22, had received the "Order of the Republic" as part of an honor system set up under ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping for his contributions to agriculture.

China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), passed a law in 2018 criminalizing anyone deemed to have smeared the “reputation and honor” of the ruling party’s canon of heroes and martyrs.

The law, which came into effect on May 1, 2018 aims to "protect the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs."

It bans "insults or slander" of heroes and martyrs, as well as any damage to memorials of revolutionary martyrs or heroic deeds.

Mobilizing state power

Meanwhile, a social media user surnamed Li was detained in the northern port city of Tianjin, a social media user surnamed Wang was detained in the southeastern port of Xiamen, while a user with the handle @shiwaitaoyuan was detained in the eastern province of Jiangsu.

Those detained had "posted insulting comments along the lines of 'dead at last' online," the Beijing police report said, without giving specific details of the posts.

All detained users had posted comments voicing approval at Yuan's death.

All Weibo accounts belonging to the detainees were shut down, Weibo said in a statement.

Independent journalist Liu Quan said the punishments were likely being meted out under the new laws governing "insults" to revolutionary heroes.

"Once people start questioning these heroes online, the power of the state can be mobilized to detain and even prosecute and jail them," Liu said.

He said that many of those the CCP lauds as heroes and martyrs were actually fabricated characters used for propaganda purposes, however.

"They fabricated the reports of their deeds in many cases, so as to project this image of somebody totally amazing and covered in glory," Liu said. "Actually, it's just about burnishing the CCP's image."

An online writer surnamed Lu said anyone honored with Xi's Order of the Republic counts as a national hero.

"Criticizing and questioning state leaders, including dead ones, can also lead to arrest," Lu said. "You will also be arrested if you criticize or try to scrutinize the government."

World Food Prize

The Weibo official account issued a statement saying that some posts had been promoting "insults and attacks" on honored heroes on the platform, and the accounts that generated the comments had been shut down for a year as a penalty.

"We will deal severely with any harmful content of this kind, and make an announcement if we find it," the statement said.

"We have a zero tolerance policy for content that distorts, debases, vilifies and denies the spirt and the actions of our heroes and martyrs," it said.

Yuan's death prompted a spate of coverage in state media, including a spot on the main CCTV news broadcast on May 22.

However, his achievements, far from being fabricated, are well-documented.

Honored with the World Food Prize in 2004, Yuan's breakthrough discoveries meant that one-fifth of the world's current cultivated rice strains trace their lineage back to his work.

Yuan carried out much of his research on his own time, conducting scientific experiments involving asexual crosses between crops, eventually outlining unique genetic tools in a 1964 paper that laid the foundations for the first ever hybrid rice crop.

When he completed the project in 1973, Yuan's first-ever hybrid rice strain, titled Nan-you No. 2, produced yields that were 20 percent higher than previous varieties.

Now, almost half of China’s rice production area is planted in hybrid rice, and feeds 70 million more people per year in China alone.

Researchers and producers of other crops in China have also used Yuan's research to develop high-yield hybrid sorghum and rapeseed varieties, according to the World Food Prize Foundation website.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chan Chun-ho for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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