Man who named bug after Xi Jinping denies belittling president

By Didi Kirsten Tatlow  /  NY Times News Service, Beijing

Sun, Jul 17, 2016 - Page 7

Under a microscope, the tiny beetle named in honor of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) looks fierce, with black, armor-like ridges and beaded antennae.

Yet, more important to Wang Chengbin (王成斌), the Prague-based Chinese entomologist who discovered and named it, the Rhyzodiastes (Temoana) xii eats rotten wood. That makes it a fitting symbol for Xi, whose campaign against official corruption is as important for China as the beetle’s diet is for the health of its environment, Wang said in a telephone interview.

“President Xi is the same. He is fighting corruption. That is so important,” said Wang, 32, who added that his discovery last year excited him so much he could not sleep at night.

He not only named it for Xi, but added the word “wolf” in Chinese, for good measure, making it literally “Xi Surnamed Wolf Spine Carapace.” (The last words indicate a beetle, which has a hard carapace, unlike the cockroach.)

Wang’s taxonomic gesture seems to have irritated China’s vigilant propaganda bosses, who have moved fast to block references to the “Xi beetle” from China’s heavily censored Internet. Searches for the beetle’s name on Tuesday failed to return results. A Weibo search for the name in Chinese showed the message that “due to relevant laws and policies, results for ‘Xi Surnamed Wolf Spine Carapace’ cannot be shown.”

Still, many reports were available in Chinese outside the country’s Great Firewall, meaning a growing number of people who use virtual private networks could read these too.

In an e-mail before the interview, Wang expressed concern that foreign news reports had portrayed him as “belittling” Xi by comparing him to a small insect. (The beetle is 7.62mm long. Xi is 180cm tall.)

“They know nothing about entomology or taxonomy,” he wrote, and “have no idea about the meaning of a biological name.”

Indeed, some Chinese have been puzzling over the notion that a beetle could be named after their president, in a country where traditionally the leaders are shielded from criticism and anything that might be interpreted as ridicule.

One Web site, Weiming Space, which is based in the US but caters to Chinese around the world, even filed it under the “joke” section on Monday last week.

With the practice of naming new species for well-known figures common elsewhere, Wang said he saw nothing wrong with it.

Xi’s name is presented respectfully, he said: “xii,” or “xi” for Xi, adding the Latin “i,” to show a male possessive.

Why is it not called “Xi Jinping”?

“In Chinese, for such a famous person, it’s a bit disrespectful to use the whole name,” he said. “The surname is enough.”

Above all, Wang said he wanted to steer clear of politics. “I am crazy on insects,” he wrote in the e-mail. “I love them. I do not want to make any trouble.”

“I like Chairman Xi. Because of him, China is getting big and strong,” he said.

Like the president, “This beetle is rare, in 10 collecting trips I’ve never seen one,” he added.

Wang is hardly the first person to name a creature after a political leader. As a post on Weiming Space said, US President Barack Obama has had a Californian trapdoor spider named after him, the Aptostichus barackobamai. Then there is Obamadon, an extinct, toothy lizard. Former South African president Nelson Mandela had not only a sea slug named after him, but its whole genus and family, a bigger honor, the Mandelia mirocornata.

Among the beetles, there is the Aegomorphus wojtylai named for Karol Wojtyla, who is perhaps better known as Pope John Paul II, and Agathidium bushi for former US president George W. Bush. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler got a blind beetle that lives in caves in Slovenia, the Anophthalmus hitleri.

The gesture that was meant to be an honor started last year, when a colleague of Wang’s found several specimens in the forested highlands of the island of Hainan, China’s southernmost province.

“He doesn’t research beetles, he researches cockroaches, so he gave them to me,” Wang said.

Careful study of the new species followed in Wang’s lab at the Czech University of Life Sciences, where Wang is a postdoctoral researcher. Then came a paper in the journal Zootaxa, dedicating the finding “to Dr Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, for his leadership making our motherland stronger and stronger.”

One online commenter in China drew parallels between a nation’s status and naming privileges for discoveries.

“What does beetle research have to do with the country’s strength and size?” asked “echowuhao” on Weiming Space, adding that for decades it was mostly foreigners who were in a position to identify and name insects.

“As an undergraduate, I studied cockroach species. Before liberation” — the 1949 Communist revolution — “people naming cockroaches were mostly Japanese, and the specimens mostly were in Taiwan University.”

“After liberation, it was mostly foreigners’ names,” echowuhao wrote.

However, all this has changed.

“After economic reform, our own people began to name cockroaches for themselves and their country,” echowuhao wrote. “Classifying insects, this kind of work is definitely something that only countries with spare money can afford to do.”