Instant noodle here is no metaphor for China’s recently caught “tiger” Zhou Yongkang, but tells almost as powerful a story of today’s China.
As death toll in earthquake-hit Yunnan province rises over 500, pictures of rescue teams from the People’s Liberation Army eating instant noodles cooked with muddy water during break went viral. But did or did not China’s soldiers have instant noodles cooked with muddy water? The question, absurd as it may seem, has been the focus of much disaster reporting in the past two days, and has ignited a war between China’s state media.
The news of muddy water instant noodles was first published by Global Times, a pro-Beijing Chinese tabloid with government background. By applauding how the PLA soldiers have “eaten bitterness” and endured hardship in disaster relief efforts, the piece was meant to be a classic propaganda piece commonly seen in disaster reporting in China to boost patriotism. It sounds exactly like something one’d read from People’s Daily 30 years ago. But China isn’t what it was 30 years ago.
Instead of patriotism, the article drew waves of questions and criticism: “It’s 2014, and our soldiers are still drinking muddy water during mission. How can we trust such a military force to defend our country during war?” “Water filters and tablets are technologies of the last century, and yet our soldiers are still cooking with muddy water in 2014. Where do the millions of military expenses go?” “What to applaud when the lives of our soldier are put at the risk of unclean drinking water in the field?”
Within a day, the criticism shifted from condemning bull-shitting reports by Global Times to questioning military expenses and possible corruption – after all, China just recently sacked its former deputy chairman of Central Military Commission for corruption charges.
The backfire, in a sense unexpected to Global Times, speaks volumes of the fact that communist propaganda that the Chinese government has been using skillfully since its founding days no longer works in today’s China.
By the next day, Global Times openly admitted that the muddy water instant noodle report was “fake” and “false,” and that PLA soldiers were actually equipped with water filters and tablets. But the muddy situation over muddy water grows even muddier when another government-back media, China National Radio, claimed that PLA soldiers did eat muddy water noodles, with interviews from the frontline and the hashtag “no merit if no investigation”.
Within hours, Global Times, once again, apologized to its viewers, saying that both were true: that PLA soldier were equipped with water filters and tablets, and that they ate muddy water noodles prepared by locals. The fault was with the newspaper that pitched it from a wrong angle and gave it a wrong title.
To this point, the question of whether muddy water noodles happened or not has become a topic of national debate. Chinese netizens sarcastically called it a “catfight between two state media.”
But the more interesting debate worth having is how something that indeed happened and something that’s fairly common to happen during disaster relief in rural areas of China has first become a tool of propaganda, then was labeled “fake,” and eventually marked an epic propaganda fail. “The turns of events tell much more than poor military logistics in China.” Many netizens commented.
China’s soldiers may still cook with unfiltered water in the field in 2014, but the Chinese people surely won’t take “unfiltered” in-your-face propaganda any more.