On July 15, Xuan Kejiong (宣克炅), a Shanghai Media Group (SMG) reporter, posted on Sina Weibo a short poem titled To the Cicada (致知了), sparking suspicion that it was a veiled criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
The poem includes lines such as “I’m talking about you” (說你呢); “you are in a position high above” (高高在上); “fat head and big ears” (肥頭大耳); “but you can only sing the praises of summer with your butt” (卻只會用屁股唱夏日裡的讚歌); “you don’t know the suffering of the world” (不知人間疾苦) and so on.
Although he deleted the post after it was up for just 30 minutes, it was too late, and his account — which had more than 1 million followers — was suspended. He was also scolded by his employer, with screenshots of their rebuke posted online.
Many of the responses to the post were from the perspective of a literary inquisition, but it is not surprising that his poem caused such a stir and got Xuan into trouble, given the situation with the Chinese media and Internet.
What is more concerning is whether a journalist’s posts on their personal social media accounts should be controlled by the company they work for.
In an article titled “Media should pay attention to social media norms” (媒體應重視社群媒體規範), published on June 21 in the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper), I recommended that news outlets formulate social media guidelines to prevent possible public relations disasters caused by their employees’ personal behavior online. I also said that all aspects of the guidelines — such as the purpose, scope and nature of the standards — should be communicated with employees in advance and reviewed regularly.
Based on screenshots of SMG’s response circulating online, Xuan’s employer believes that, as a mainstream media journalist with a certain reputation and popularity, he was out of line, because “posting thoughts about life under one’s own name does not prevent readers from associating the writer with their professional identity.”
The statement confirms my view over the past few years: A reporter’s personal words and deeds inevitably affect the media company they work for, and the more well-known the reporter and their employer are, the greater the effect will be, irrespective of the media environment in which they are.
This is not to say that the media environment has no bearing on the nature of social media guidelines. In an ecosystem in which a range of political affiliations coexist, social media guidelines are a tool for a company to make better use of online platforms to fit in and survive. In a media landscape with only a single viewpoint or political outlook, the media become a tool for serving the political regime.
The most important difference between the two, apart from their purposes, is who sets the rules. The former is through communication between the company and the employees, while the latter is top-down, from political parties to state authorities, and then to the media, while the employees have no say.
Therefore, the legitimacy of social media guidelines depends on their purpose and how they are formulated.
Looking at the Xuan incident, being silenced on social media because of a poem complaining about cicadas being too loud certainly seems disproportionate.
However, in working with many senior reporters, I found that they are generally shrewd people, used to assessing political and economic risks whenever they write, as if it were a natural ability. The argument that Xuan’s poem was intended to complain about cicadas making a racket is unpersuasive.
As for whether the insects are noisy, in China, where the political spectrum is red through and through, cicadas can easily stand out and appear brazen and unbearable. On the other hand, Taiwan has many shades of political leanings — red, white, yellow, green and blue camps — and they all have their own voices.
There are plenty of cicadas making noise in Taiwan — the noisier the better — so it makes sense to get used to it.
Chang Yueh-han holds a doctorate from Shih Hsin University.
Translated by Lin Lee-kai
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