When the White House created a petitioning website in 2011, it surely didn’t count on Barack Obama being asked to invade China, rule on the flavour of tofu and investigate a two-decade old Chinese poisoning case.
But that is exactly what has happened over the past week as Chinese people, motivated variously by a sense of justice, powerlessness or just plain humour, have flooded the White House “We the People” website.
The catalyst for the surge in Chinese petitions was a sad one. Since late April, Chinese internet users had been calling for authorities to reopen an investigation into the 1995 poisoning of Zhu Ling, a student at the prestigious Tsignhua University. She was left disabled and the perpetrator was never found.
But the appeals went nowhere and Zhu’s name was soon blocked on Chinese social media, perhaps because the unsolved crime reflected badly on the government and perhaps because a suspect, Zhu’s former roommate, was supposedly the granddaughter of a former high-ranking official. (The case is explained here by Adam Minter from Bloomberg View.)
Whatever the exact cause of the censorship, attention quickly shifted to the White House website. There, the case could be raised without impediment. What’s more, Zhu’s former roommate, previously questioned but released by Chinese police, had moved to the US, so it made sense to Chinese internet users to ask US authorities to look into her story.
On the White House website, a petition must collect 100,000 signatures within one month for the administration to review the request and issue a response. The Zhu petition – which calls for the investigation and deportation of the alleged suspect – had collected more than 135,000 signatures as of Wednesday, just five days after it was launched.
Given legal and diplomatic realities, the Zhu petition is unlikely to amount to much. But it did at least have one immediate impact. As word spread on Chinese social media of the White House petitioning website, advocates for other causes in China came out in droves.
At last count, five China-related petitions have been started over the past three days.
Two urge US military intervention: one to liberate the Chinese people and the other to liberate the people of Hong Kong.
Another two raise environmental concerns. The first asks Obama to tell China to halt the construction of chemical plant in the southwestern city of Kunming. The second calls for an assessment of the safety of a petrochemical plant in Sichuan province.
The other petition is lighter hearted. “We politely request that the US government establish that the official flavour of tofu curd should be sweet, by adding syrup, granulated sugar, brown sugar or other sweeteners.” Many consumers of tofu curd, a goopy breakfast concoction, like it salty; others prefer it sweet.
The sudden popularity of the White House petitions website in China users owes something to China’s own traditions. In imperial times, people took their grievances directly to officials to ask for their help, believing that high-ranking civil servants were fair and just. That practice has carried on to the modern day with the government establishing the State Bureau for Letters and Visits to receive petitions from ordinary citizens.
On Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging service, a new account was created for “Obama, director of the Letters and Visits Office“. A crudely photoshopped picture spreading around Weibo – and has leapt over to Twitter – transforms the White House into the Letters and Visits Office, depicting Obama studiously reviewing petitions.
The joke is tinged with criticism of domestic politics: if only Chinese could get such attentitiveness from their own officials. Every provincial capital in China has a petition office, often receiving millions of requests a year. Those who feel justice has not been served at the local level take their requests to the national petition office in Beijing. When the national parliament sits in March, the Letters and Visits office is inundated with petitioners from around the country.
Concerned that criticism would make them look bad, some provinces expend vast amounts of energy on preventing their residents from reaching the Beijing office, detaining them in illegal jails or barring them from travelling to the capital in the first place.
“The contrast with the White House’s approach is jarring,” writes David Wertime, co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation, a digital magazine about China. “It’s a valuable reminder of American soft power in the digital age.”
But Chinese petitioners to the White House are likely to find that appeals to Obama are even less effective than appeals to their own leaders in Beijing.
There is an old, oft-cited Chinese saying that describes the remoteness of the country’s leaders: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far”.
An updated version may be in order: “The ocean is vast and the emperor is even farther”.